How Much Sleep Do I Really Need?
A recent article in Newsweek chronicled the ways in which Americans are suffering—often due to our own choices and habits—with sleep problems. One of the biggest problems is the lack of total sleep hours that we get on an average night. Earlier in the 1900s, sleep averages were about eight hours per night. Americans averaged 7.1 hours per night in the 1970s. We now get an average of 6.1 hours per night. This abysmal look at sleep length begs the question, how much sleep do you actually need? And how much sleep do you need to be sharp, and not just getting the bare minimum to function?
The answer is easy to determine as an average, but sleep researchers point out that everyone is different. Often what works for one person is not enough (or too much) for someone else. Generally, you can estimate how much sleep a person needs based on their age. According to the National Sleep Foundation, the recommendations are:
- Older Adults 65+: 7–8 hours
- Adults 24–64: 7–9
- Young Adults 18–25: 7–9
- Teenages 14–17: 8–10
- Older Children 6–13: 9–11
- Children 3–5: 10–13 hours
- and more for younger children
With these recommendations in mind, one this in clear: six hours, the national average, is simply not enough sleep for most people. In fact, sleeping only six hours per night can add up to big losses.
How Much Sleep We Actually Get (and the Consequences)
A study published by University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine researchers tested people running on four, six, or eight hours of sleep per night for fourteen nights. Researchers discovered that performance on cognitive tests “continuously declined for the four- and six-hour groups, depending on the amount of sleep” and “even for the six-hour group, the cognitive deficits were equivalent to two nights of complete sleep deprivation.” Surprised? While sleep deprived, most people actually underrate their sleepiness and are unaware of how poorly they are functioning. Because of this, it’s easy to see how many people could be experiencing sleep deprivation and not realize it.
There are some people who claim that six hours (or less) is enough sleep for them to be productive, but research shows that this is rare, and isn’t due to conditioning or getting your body used to sleeping less. It appears to be a genetic mutation and exists in less than 3% of the population. For that 3%, they can sleep six hours a night and perform cognitive tests as well as most people who sleep eight hours per night. They recover faster from further sleep deprivation and just plain don’t need as much sleep. But, chances are, if you’re sleeping less than seven hours a night, you’re not as sharp as you could be.
What is the Right Amount of Sleep for You?
So how do you calculate the amount of sleep that is right for you? You can narrow down how much you should be getting, but really trial and error will be key, along with the option of using a tool that may give you insight into your own habits. Try keeping a sleep journal and note what you were doing in the evening, when you went to bed, when you woke up, how many times or how much you awoke during the night, and how you felt the following day. WebMD has a good example of how to keep a sleep diary to determine your patterns and ideal amount of sleep.
Ask yourself these questions:
- Was I able to be productive today?
- Did I have to drink caffeine to feel awake?
- Did I have to drink caffeine in the afternoon to feel sharp again?
- How was my focus while driving?
- Did I lose my train of thought frequently?
- Was I able to handle everyday stressors?
- Was I able to eat normally and control my food cravings?
- Did I have to re-read material at work or ask people to repeat what they’d said because I didn’t follow?
- Was there a time I felt “zoned out?”
You may find that it’s easy to determine what amount of sleep is right for you. For instance, if you sleep on the weekend and awake feeling refreshed after sleeping in, maybe around eight or nine hours of sleep, but you otherwise sleep seven hours during the week and hit the snooze alarm several times, then you know that you should leave nine hours per night for quality sleep.
Other ways to determine how much sleep you need involve a bit of technology that’s relatively new. Many smart phones come with sensors that allow apps to record levels of motion and disturbances. Sleep Cycle is an app that not only tracks your sleep patterns, but keeps the data for analyzation, and allows you to set an alarm that will wake you when you’re naturally having a lighter period of sleep. Unlike a traditional alarm clock which wakes you at a certain hour, this app gives you the option of an easier transition to wakefulness with no need to repeatedly hit the snooze button. Just be ready to sleep with your phone in your bed and not on the bedside table.
It really is crucial to make sure you’re getting enough sleep. Other than the obvious reasons like staying sharp at work and being able to handle stress, other health factors show the serious damage that can be done when you’re not getting enough sleep. According to Phyllis C. Zee, MD, PhD, professor of neurology and director of the Sleep Disorders Center at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago: “data shows that with sleep loss, there are changes in the way the body handles glucose, which could lead to a state of insulin resistance (pre-diabetes).” Dr. Zee adds “there is also evidence that lack of sleep alters appetite regulation, which may lead to overeating or food choices that can also contribute to overweight and obesity.”
Of course, if your bed is keeping you from getting enough sleep—or from getting deep, restful sleep—an easy solution is to replace your mattress. Even if you think your sleep is alright, if your mattress is old or low-quality, chances are you could be sleeping a lot better. A new mattress will give you the support that you need for your back and joints, and the comfortable softness that allows you to drift to sleep easily and stay asleep all night. Try the Jonathan Stevens mattress finder to find your perfect mattress.