The Great Debate: How Many Hours of Sleep Per Night Do You Need?
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Sleep is important. We all know it. We also live in a real world that doesn’t really care how much we sleep. So, how much sleep can we reasonably skip? How much do we really need? A lot of people have chimed in on the topic, but today you’re going to get the definitive answer.
The National Sleep Foundation
The group has long been renowned for their research on all things regarding sleep, and they’ve long been considered an authority on the subject. They, however, were not satisfied with this status, so they did a huge study to definitively answer the question we all wonder: how much sleep do we really need? A full 18 researchers spend 2 years working on the study, and it’s now cited by pretty much everyone as the absolute answer.
Breaking down sleep needs isn’t entirely simple. It depends on how old you are, your health status and a lot of other minute factors. As a starting point, we’ll ignore those details and circle back to them in a minute. The foundation determined that an adult between the ages of 18 and 64 will typically need 7 to 9 hours of sleep. That’s probably around what you were expecting to read, but it’s not the whole story. Those details we’re skipping really do matter, and there are a lot of things that might make you need more or less sleep than this large average. That said, it’s a great benchmark for beginning the discussion, and if you’re reading this because you don’t feel rested, aiming for that 7 to 9 figure is a good starting point for fixing your sleep problems.
Complicating Sleep Factors
Let’s just be real for a minute. Not all of us are living a lifestyle that we would deem adequately healthy. We cheat on diets, get lazy with exercise and indulge more often than we probably should. It’s pretty normal, and everybody falls into it at least some of the time. That matters a lot when talking about sleep. Mostly, this is because the Foundation’s study assumes certain levels of health and activity.
Now, if you have a documented medical issue that affects your sleep, obviously you shouldn’t expect to fit into the 7 to 9 average. That said, a lot of us don’t have diagnosed problems but still might have subtle issues that matter. So, if your weight isn’t quite where you like it or your physical activity is inconsistent (mine certainly is), then your ideal sleep number is going to dance around and the study you just read about is mostly meaningless.
Even outside of health, there are subtle complications that make counting sleeping hours difficult. Most of us look at the clock when we go to bed and then wake up when the alarm sounds (after varying numbers of slaps to the snooze button). Here’s why this is a little weird. You’re never going to know exactly how long it took you to get to sleep. Even if you have a good guess, you don’t know how long it takes to get into deep or restful sleep. When you really think about it, you don’t really have a solid number for how much you slept any night, yet most of us base it on when we get in bed and when we set the alarm. If you get up frequently or normally take a while to nod off, your idea of how much you sleep can be wildly inaccurate.
None of this is intended to make you feel self-conscious or uncertain about your sleeping habits. It’s to remind you that you might feel tired because, even though you’re going to bed early enough to get a full night of rest, your body isn’t actually sleeping that whole time. It also means that the 7 to 9 average has pretty blurred lines and isn’t the absolute number we would like to be able to trust.
Unfortunately, that’s not the end of what makes counting sleep difficult. You’re an adult. You don’t need to be told that not all sleeps are equal. Sometimes a 15-minute nap feels like the most restful sleep of all time, and on plenty of other occasions a full night leaves you feeling as exhausted as when you hit the pillow. The 7 to 9 average assumes quality sleep. If there are factors preventing you from getting to that deep, restful, restorative sleep, then you can stay in bed 18 hours a day and it won’t help.
You’ve seen this discussion before. Every sleep expert in the world warns about the dangers of modern technology. It’s not a crazy sci-fi thing. Instead, it’s super simple. Electronics have lights. Light wakes people up or inhibits the quality of their sleep. It’s why you’ve been told by everything you’ve ever read to turn off the devices and sleep in the dark. It definitely helps quality.
Air temperature matters too. If you’re too hot or cold, you’ll sleep, but it will be fitful. In fact, sleep researchers have found that a huge number of nightmares are caused by just being too hot or too cold. If you wake up with a fright, adjust your covers to avoid returning to a frightful dream.
The point of all of this is that the ideal sleep number needs you to work towards sleeping well. Learning how can help you tackle sleepless nights.
Enemies of Sleep
We just covered light and temperature, but there are plenty of other enemies of good sleep. Noise is an obvious one. If you have trouble with sleepiness, get aggressive and tackle consistent noises that give you trouble. Some people struggle with ticking clocks. Dripping faucets or running toilets can be similar problems. Some people prefer the ambient noise of a large fan and others can’t stand it. There’s no perfect rule here, but getting into an ideal sleep pattern will require you to figure out what keeps you up at night.
Another big enemy of sleep is physical comfort. Heat and cold fall into that category, but you could be shooting yourself in the foot by sleeping on a lumpy mattress or an old pillow. This is particularly important as age becomes a factor. An 18-year-old can sleep virtually anywhere and be fine, but as you cross into your 30s and beyond, small discomforts take a bigger toll. Be aware and stay on top of that stuff.
All of that is pretty obvious, but the biggest secret sleep killer is actually anxiety. Now, if you’ve had a problem and seen a doctor, great! Keep at it. A lot of people have much more subtle anxiety. It’s not to the point of disorder, so a lot of us try to power through it. That’s pretty dumb. If you just can’t get your brain to shut off at night, you’re probably fighting anxiety. What’s remarkable is how often this has nothing to do with your general emotional state. Eating too late at night (much less imbibing alcohol or caffeine) can cause gastronomically induced anxiety. It’s not going to send you into a panic attack, but it makes it take longer to get into good sleep. If you just pay attention to your body, you can find a lot of these little things that hurt your sleep and you can make big changes with little effort.
Indicators of Sleep Health
All of this is pointed at an important conclusion. Sleep health isn’t determined by a numbers. Studies and averages can help guide the journey, but everyone has to find their own ideal sleep pattern. It’s not something you’ll perfect overnight (pun intended), but every small improvement snowballs into better and better health. The trick is to know the indicators and use them to navigate your efforts.
The number one indicator is super obvious: are you sleepy? If you wake up before your alarm full of energy and get through the day without feeling drained, then your sleep schedule is excellent. You’re also probably a freak of nature, and bragging about that stuff isn’t helping your popularity. If you’re a normal human being, you might have a part of the day where you’re constantly groggy. You might struggle to get up in the morning. You might depend on caffeine or supplements just to stay productive.
Defeating eternal drowsiness is a process. Start by trying to force your schedule towards that 7 to 9 hour average. Once there, try to improve your quality of sleep. If you feel like you’re having success, then you can really fine tune things and see what your personal, ideal sleep number is. From there, you can finally get some good rest. Once you do, chime in here. The rest of us could use a little encouragement.