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How Much Sleep Do You Need? What the Science Says

how much sleep do you need?

Sleep is one of life’s constants. Yet for so many of us, it can be very… inconsistent. 

If you struggle with falling asleep, staying asleep, or restless sleep, you’re not alone. Sleeping is a frustrating experience for many people, leading many to wake up tired, frustrated, and groggy. 

This article will provide you with the science and information you need to hack your sleep cycle and start sleeping better and waking up refreshed and rejuvenated.

How Much Sleep Do You Really Need?

The sleepfoundation.org suggests the following sleep needs for different ages:

  • Toddlers: 11-14 hours (including naps)
  • Preschoolers: 10-13 hours (including naps)
  • School-aged: 9-12 hours 
  • Teenagers: 8-10 hours
  • Adults: 7 hours or more

However, amongst adults, that 7-9 hours you typically hear can vary greatly. There are some people who need at least 9, and others who can exist perfectly healthy at 6 or less. These people are called “Short Sleepers'' and they have a genetic mutation that allows their bodies and minds to fully recover and rejuvenate in a shorter period of time.

However, they make up a very small porpotion of the population, and you probably need the recommended 7-9 hours.  

Also, this recommended sleep time doesn’t take into account sleep quality, which we’ll discuss next. 

The big takeaway is that you should feel refreshed and alert when you wake up, with enough energy to make it through the day.

What Is Sleep Quality and Why Does It Matter?

Sleep quality is how well you slept, and if your brain actually got the rest it needed. A high-quality sleep should include:

  • You sleep straight through the night.
  • If you do wake up, you fall asleep quickly.
  • You don’t fully wake up often while sleeping.
  • Snoring is at a minimum.

There are some natural discrepancies in sleep quality. As we age, for example, our production of melatonin (the body’s natural sleep hormone) decreases, and our circadian rhythm (our body’s sleep-wake cycle) is naturally disrupted. This means you’ll have a harder time getting to sleep and staying to sleep in your 50s and 60s than you did when you were in your 20s. 

What happens when you don’t get enough sleep?

Not getting enough sleep, or having poor quality of sleep, can result in dangerous physical and mental health conditions, such as an increased risk for:

This can happen even with small amounts of sleep loss. Cutting just one or two hours of sleep to be more productive or get ahead could have serious health implications.

Am I Sleeping Well?

Signs that your sleep is poor include:

  • Trouble paying attention
  • Lag in reaction times
  • Memory loss
  • Reduced cognitive functioning like problem-solving or organizing
  • Increased anxiety
  • Craving food high in calories
  • Fogginess or “brain fog” 

If you’re fatigued during the day, you may be quick to blame your sleep habits. While you should definitely examine your sleep quality, it’s not the only culprit that causes fatigue and daytime sleepiness. 

Other mental health issues that can cause fatigue, brain fog, and tiredness include:

To figure out if your sleep is causing your fatigue or a deeper issue, keep a sleep journal. Keep a notebook or your phone next to your bed. Every morning when you wake up, record:

  • When you went to bed
  • When you wake up
  • How many times you woke up during the night
  • How long it took you to fall back asleep
  • How you feel in the morning (refreshed, groggy, exhausted, etc.)

After a few weeks, you’ll start to notice a pattern. If your sleep quality is lagging and you wake up feeling tired with low energy, you can be pretty sure your sleep is playing a part in your exhaustion.

What Is Sleep Debt?

Your body needs sleep, it isn’t something you can opt out of. So when you don’t get it, your body experiences a sleep debt. For example, if you only sleep 6 hours, but your body needs 8, you have a 2-hour sleep debt. This may prompt you to take a nap, go to bed earlier, or, as is most people’s solution, sleep in on the weekends. 

However, two mornings of sleeping in isn’t enough to catch up on most people’s sleep debt. 

In fact, 1 hour of sleep debt can take up to 4 days to pay off

So, it’s in our best interest to stay on top of sleep every night, and not rely on the weekends to catch up. 

What About Sleep Cycles?

You may have heard of a “sleep cycle”, and that it’s important to wake according to the 90-minute cycle. 

Is there any truth in it? 

Yes!

But to understand sleep cycles we have to understand the stages of sleep:

  • Stage 1 (N1) — Drowsiness and light sleep — 1-7 minutes. This is the first, very light stage of sleep. You begin to relax into sleep, and you may still be aware of your surroundings. You may twitch and start to have some waking dreams. 
  • Stage 2 (N2) — light to moderate sleep —10-25 minutes, but becomes longer the further into the night you go. This is when your body starts to fully relax, your body temperature drops, and parts of your brain slow down. You spend about half your time sleeping in the N2 stage. 
  • Stage 3 (N3) — deep, restorative sleep — 20-40 minutes. This is the crucial stage of restoration for your body and brain. It is difficult to wake when you’re in this stage, and if you wake up you’ll likely be more groggy than other stages. This sleep contributes to immune health, creativity, memory, and insightful thinking.
  • Stage 4 (REM) — Rapid Eye Movement sleep — 10-60 minutes. During this stage, your brain starts to wake up, but your body is in a temporary paralysis. Dreams are very vivid during this stage, and it is associated with increased learning, memory, and creativity. This stage takes up about 25% of our nightly sleep. 

So, does sleeping according to our sleep cycles work? Well, yes. Every cycle is crucial to our health and wellness, so it’s best if your body goes through them naturally. If it does, you’ll happily come out of a light sleep feeling refreshed and ready for the day. 

Unfortunately, it can be difficult to predict exactly when you’ll enter REM sleep or when you should wake up. So setting an alarm predicting when you’ve gone through a few 90-minute cycles doesn’t always work. Plus, if you wake up in the middle of the night, you have to fall back asleep and restart the cycle. 

Instead, it’s best to practice good sleep hygiene to help your body find the best rhythm.

Why Can’t I Sleep?

Figuring out if you’re sleeping well or not is the easy part, the hard part comes next: why can’t you sleep? And how do you fix it? 

There are many reasons why you may not be sleeping well. Common things that prevent people from sleeping well include:

  • Stress: You know the feeling—your mind is racing around to-do lists and confrontations and unknowns. Stress is one of the most common sleep-stealers.
  • Messing up your natural circadian rhythm: Jet lag is an extreme example of a messed-up circadian rhythm. (Your mind has to adjust to a new time zone and sleeping pattern) but early or late work shifts, staying up too late, or switching wake-up times frequently can also make it difficult for your body to find a happy routine. 
  • Active brain too close to bed: When you eat or sleep in bed, play video games late into the night, or are physically active right before bed, you’re telling your brain it’s not time to sleep yet. We’ll talk about healthy sleep habits to ease yourself into sleep below. 
  • Mental Health Disorders: Anxiety, PTSD, and ADHD are all mental health issues that can prompt you to stay up late or wake up in the middle of the night, whether you want to or not. 
  • Caffeine: Too much caffeine too close to bed can make you stay up late. How close is too close to have one more cup of coffee? Experts recommend stopping caffeine consumption 6-8 hours before bed. So realistically, we should stop drinking coffee and caffeinated beverages by 2 or 3 pm.  

Now that we know why we aren’t sleeping well, let’s explore some strategies for better sleep hygiene. 

How to Get Better Sleep

Remember that good sleep hygiene is defined by the quality of sleep and the amount slept. Quality means you successfully go through the stages of sleep and sleep soundly throughout the night. The best way to get better sleep is to identify the reason your sleep is being interrupted. If it is because of a mental or physical health problem, check with your doctor. 

Other things you can do to get better sleep include:

  • Maintain a consistent wake time, especially on weekends: While the thought of waking up at the same time on the weekends as you do on your weekdays may make you cringe, remember that the healthiest sleep patterns are ones where you’re not accruing any sleep debt at all. Structure your days so you can receive 7-9 hours of sleep every night, regardless if you have work the next day or not. 
  • Limit daytime naps to 20 to 30 minutes, and at least six hours before the desired bedtime: We know that a nap can feel so good sometimes, but it also messes with your body’s natural circadian rhythm and may leave you feeling more groggy after. 
  • Be physically active: Most of us work at desks or sit most of the day. All of this inactivity can make it difficult to fall asleep. Try to get light to moderate exercise every day, even if it’s just a short walk or a few at-home exercises. 
  • Protect your bed: Don’t work, watch TV, or engage in hobbies in bed. We know it can be comfortable, but that primes your brain into thinking that the bed is a place for being active. If you keep your bed for sleeping, simply lying down will signal to your brain that it’s time to sleep. 
  • Get some sun during your waking hours: The sun is our largest natural source of rhythm. Being inside artificial light all day can confuse the body, and studies have found that being exposed to bright daytime light helped improve sleep quality for insomniacs
  • Reduce blue light: Blue light is emitted by our electronics and can trick the brain into thinking it’s daytime still. Studies have shown that reducing blue light before going to bed can improve quality of sleep. Blue-light refracting glasses can also help, but there isn’t conclusive evidence or standardized production of them to make them completely scientifically sound. Instead, your best bet is to not take electronics to bed and have a nighttime routine that doesn’t involve electronics. 

You may have some trial-and-error before you find what works for you. Everyone’s body is going to be a little bit different, so take some time to figure out what works best for you!

Can Therapy Help Me Sleep Better?

A big cause of insomnia is mental health issues like anxiety disorders, grief, and even depression. Mental health therapy is a great option for treating the underlying cause of these instances of insomnia and low-quality sleep. 

For more information, reach out to our team. Let them know you’ve been struggling with your sleep and we’ll match you with a therapist who can help.

Find Your Therapist

Frequently Asked Questions

Adequate sleep is vital for overall well-being. The recommended amount of sleep can vary depending on age and individual needs. Generally, adults should aim for 7-9 hours of sleep per night to support optimal mental and physical health.

 While the notion of needing exactly 8 hours of sleep is a common guideline, everyone's sleep needs can differ. Some individuals may feel their best with slightly more or less sleep. The key is to listen to your body and ensure you're getting enough rest to feel refreshed and alert during the day.

 Improving sleep quality is essential for mental health and overall well-being. Here are some tips to enhance your sleep:

  • Establish a consistent sleep schedule by going to bed and waking up at the same time every day.

  • Create a relaxing bedtime routine to signal to your body that it's time to wind down.

  • Make your sleep environment conducive to rest by keeping your bedroom dark, quiet, and cool.

  • Limit screen time before bed as the blue light from devices can disrupt your sleep cycle.

  • Practice relaxation techniques such as deep breathing or meditation to calm your mind before sleep.

  • Remember, prioritizing quality sleep is a crucial component of self-care and mental health. Ensuring you get the right amount of rest can positively impact your mood, energy levels, and overall mental well-being.

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