How Much Sleep Do You Really Need?

How much sleep do you really need?

You’re familiar with the concept. You’ve heard about it for years. You hated it when you were four. You loved it when you were a tween. You skimped on it and then power-napped through it in college. Then, one day, you finally learned how important it was when you brought that newborn baby home and didn’t get it for a while. Sure, you say that know all there is to know about sleep. But do you really? Do you know exactly how much sleep you’re supposed to get each night? Even for a seasoned snoozer like yourself, the answer might surprise you.

How much sleep is enough?

For anyone interested in sleep, this is the most common and essential question. The truth is, when it comes to sleep duration, there is no single number that is right for everyone. Sleep needs vary by individual, and change at different times over the course of a lifespan.[1] You begin life with a high demand for sleep—newborns spend somewhere between 16 to 20 hours a day sleeping. Then as a young child, you generally require 10 to 12 hours of sleep to meet your needs, as an adolescent, you typically need nine or more hours. Most healthy adults require somewhere in the range of seven to nine hours of nightly sleep to feel rested, mentally sharp and alert, with sufficient energy to meet the demands of the waking day. There are some people who can function well on six hours or less of sleep, but scientists estimate that these lucky individuals make-up no more than a small sliver of the general population—around 5 percent.[2] Most of us need at least seven or more hours of sleep on a regular basis to function at and feel our best.

The importance of quality sleep

If you’re like the majority of Americans, getting seven to eight hours of sleep on a regular basis might seem unrealistic or difficult to achieve. Busy schedules, the rigorous demands of work and family life often push your sleep aside. In the United States, sleep deprivation has reached epidemic levels. Estimates are that nearly a third of U.S. adults are sleeping less than seven hours a night.[3] Chronic insufficient sleep has serious and long-term consequences for your health, productivity, and relationships.[4] Getting enough sleep on a regular basis is not only possible, but it’s also too important to ignore.

Are you facing a sleep debt?

The occasional night of short sleep duration is normal and to be expected. A night or two of abbreviated sleep now and then will make you feel mentally and physically fatigued, but probably won’t affect your health or performance over the long term. Sleep deprivation becomes a real problem to health and quality of life when it becomes the rule rather than the exception. Not getting sufficient amounts of sleep creates what experts call a “sleep debt”.[5] Sleep debt accrues like any other kind of debt—when you don’t “pay in” what you owe—in this case, sufficient time for restful sleep. A little sleep debt is actually a good thing. Being tired at the end of the day helps increase the need for sleep. Too much sleep debt can cause problems with daily functioning and overall health. A large sleep debt can lead to diminished mental performance and changes to your appetite that can lead to weight gain.

Erasing a sleep debt that’s been accrued is best done gradually. If you’ve run short on sleep during the week, it may be tempting to try to catch up with extra sleep on the weekends. Research suggests that this catch-up strategy doesn’t fully remedy the effects of the initial sleep loss.[6] A varying sleep schedule also undermines your body’s ability to regulate sleep effectively. Too much catch-up sleep can leave you wide awake and unable to fall asleep by the end of the weekend. This “Sunday night insomnia” cascades into “Monday morning blues,” as you wake tired from too little sleep. You can avoid this see-sawing sleep difficulty by maintaining a regular bedtime and wake time throughout the week. If you find yourself short on sleep after a stretch of insufficient rest, add no more than 30-60 minutes of extra sleep to your bedtime.

Although insufficient sleep is a much more common problem, too much sleep is also a problem. Sleeping too much can result in feeling tired and fatigued, and lead to health problems. Extending sleep duration also will disturb your body’s finely-calibrated sleep-wake cycles, which can lead to additional difficulty sleeping.

Do you need less sleep than others?

Currently, millions of people suffer from middle-of-the-night insomnia. An estimated 35 percent of American adults experience periods of waking during the night at least a few times a week.[7] This usually temporary condition may be treated clinically with pharmaceuticals and cognitive behavior therapy yet, unfortunately, is more likely to be self-treated with alcohol. A new wave in thinking says that, when it comes to sleep, you could be doing it wrong. At least, that’s the contention of some historians, anthropologists and sleep researchers who suggest that bedding down for seven to eight consecutive hours of rest is unnatural. Their argument — and its supporting evidence — says that not all nighttime wakeups are insomnia. But it is suggested that waking up in the middle of the night may actually be natural and healthy for some individuals, rather than a sign of poor sleep. As such, some cases of insomnia may be more about our cultural attitude towards middle-of-the-night awakening, not a personal failing.

Does your age play a role in how much sleep you need?

As you become an adult and begin to age, certain changes to sleep patterns can affect how long you sleep. Older adults spend less time in deep sleep and REM sleep, and more time in lighter, less restorative phases of sleep.[8] As a result, you may sleep less at night. Your need for sleep doesn’t necessarily diminish with age, but you may find that you need to adjust your sleep habits, such as including a daytime nap, to continue to get sufficient rest.

How can you make sure you’re getting enough?

The key to avoiding sleep debt is consistency. Regular bedtimes and wake times help ensure you’re getting enough sleep to meet your individual needs. Creating a routine that lets you meet your sleep needs is possible with some simple adjustments. For most people, it is easier to adjust bedtimes than wake times—so begin by identifying the time you need to rise in the morning. To determine your bedtime, work backward a full eight hours from your necessary wake time.[9] Spend a week or so on this sleep schedule. If you’re getting sufficient sleep, you should wake feeling rested and refreshed. You should feel able to focus throughout the day, with enough energy to meet both mental and physical demands. Too little sleep will leave you feeling tired in the morning and fatigued during the day and your ability concentrate may feel compromised. Pay attention to how you feel, and continue to adjust your bedtime to refine your sleep duration until you find the number that works for you. Once you’ve found the sleep routine that works for you, stick to it— even on the weekends. A regular sleep schedule is your best defense against racking up a large sleep debt.

The right amount of sleep is the amount that leaves you feeling rejuvenated, refreshed, and prepared for the day ahead. Identifying the sleep duration that meets your individual needs is the first step toward a lifelong habit of healthy sleep.

See how much sleep YOU need below.

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