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How much sleep do we really need?

Mark Spalek
GHR (reg), Dip. Hyp, Dip. NLP, GQHP, MSc, BSc, PGCE

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In terms of the amount of sleep we get in the modern fast paced world, the popular belief, and backed up by studies1, is that we sleep less than we did 50 years ago. But what exactly is the right amount of sleep for each of us? And what happens when we don’t get enough sleep?

There are many historic examples of successful people who existed on a minimum level of sleep and napped during the day. For example, Margaret Thatcher, the former UK prime minister, reportedly built her fearsome reputation around sleeping as little as four hours a night2. John F Kennedy, one of America’s most famous presidents, was a notable napper, taking a one to two hour nap most afternoons3.

Research into sleep throws up some interesting points on the subject of optimal sleep times. There seems to be a critical level of sleep that we need per night before we start to feel the effects both mentally and physically. This figure is around seven to eight hours. One study reported that restricting subjects to six hours or less of sleep per night over a long period of time had a negative effect on mental functioning and that the longer subjects were deprived of sleep the worse this got4. Another found that the average quota of sleep for adult humans was between seven to eight hours, and reducing this by two hours led to impairment of performance and alertness5.

Both these studies challenge the view of some experts who claim that we need a core amount of six hours of sleep per night and that the rest can be cut back.

But do we all need the same amount of sleep?

Not necessarily, as shown by a study that found sleep time in a sample of 40-45 year olds varied considerably in terms of duration and subjective sleep need, with 20% reporting insufficient sleep, and 11% insomnia6. The study highlighted that women had slightly longer naps than men and that frequent nappers took longer naps than infrequent nappers.

An inadequate amount of sleep each night may lead to tragedy. Indeed, there is evidence that several catastrophes, namely those involving nuclear power plants and transportation, involved human errors by workers that did not have adequate sleep and who were often working shifts during the night7. This could be due to sleep deprivation having a negative impact on sleepiness, motor and cognitive performance, as well as moods.

Sleep deprivation can also affect our metabolism as well as hormonal and immunological systems. In short, sleeping less than we need to can lead to long-term poor physical health.

But what happens when we sleep more than the average seven to eight hours?

According to research sleeping more than we need to can also adversely affect factors such as our mood, sleepiness, performance and vigilance. Extending sleep times only seems to benefit those that consistently reduce their sleep, such as students and shift-workers.

So it’s important to realize that we are all unique individuals, and therefore require different amounts of sleep in order to function at our optimal levels, and for the majority of us, this will be between seven to eight hours per night.

Tips for getting a good night’s sleep
1. Avoid drinking alcohol as this has a disruptive effect on sleep patterns, leading to fitful sleep and waking up in the middle of the night.

2. Avoid drinking caffeine and drinks with high sugar content before bedtime. These function as stimulants and can make it difficult for us to relax and unwind, two things that we need to do in order to sleep well.

3. Do not indulge in excessive physical activity before going to bed. Excessive exercise stimulates the brain muscles and heart and it can make it harder to fall asleep. Plan your exercise routines so that you give yourself plenty of time to slow down and unwind after the gym.

4. Avoid stimulating the mind with crossword puzzles or playing a computer game just before going to bed as this can make it harder to fall asleep.

5. Make sure your bedroom is quiet and that you are neither too hot nor too cold. If light disturbs you in the early morning, then it may make sense to invest in a pair of heavy curtains that block out light efficiently.

6. Relax your mind and body through a gentle meditation each night in order to prepare for a good night’s sleep.

7. Get into the habit of going to bed at the same time and getting up at the same time. The mind and body enjoy routine and this in turn will help you get a good night’s sleep and feel refreshed when you wake up.

References
1. Ferrara M, De Gennaro LD. How much sleep do we need? Sleep Med Rev 2001;5: 155-79.

2. De Castella, T. (2013) Thatcher: Can people get by on four hours’ sleep? [Online]  
Available: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-22084671 [25 Nov 2013]

3. McKay B. & McKay C. (2011) The Napping Habits of 8 Famous Men, [Online]
Available: http://www.artofmanliness.com/2011/03/14/the-napping-habits-of-8-famous-men/ [25 Nov 2013]

4. Hans, P. et al. (2003) ‘The Cumulative Cost of Additional Wakefulness: Dose-Response Effects on Neurobehavioral Functions and Sleep Physiology From Chronic Sleep Restriction and Total Sleep Deprivation’, SLEEP, Vol. 26, No. 2, pp. 117-126.

5. Ferrara, M. & De Gennaro, L. (2001) ‘How much sleep do we need?’, Sleep Medicine Reviews, Vol. 4, No. 2, pp. 000-000.

6. Ursin, R. et al. (2004) ‘Sleep Duration, Subjective Sleep Need, and Sleep Habits of 40- to 45-Year-Olds in the Hordaland Health Study’, SLEEP, Vol. 28, No. 10, pp. 1260-1269, 2005.

7. Mitler M, Carskadon M, Czeisler C et al. ‘Catastrophes, sleep, and public policy: consensus report.’ Sleep 1988; 11: pp. 100-109.

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