How Much Sleep Do You REALLY Need?

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I woke up yesterday and immediately knew something was different. A familiar but unusual feeling came over me. Like kindling a fire, at first it was delicate and tentative, but as I began my morning routine, the feeling grew until it was a roar. That feeling was energy. I was switched on. Alive. Motivated. Before I’d even had my breakfast, three great ideas had popped into my head.

 

Energy is not something I’ve had in abundance lately. In fact, some days I’ve felt wiped, especially in the early evenings when I’ve been turning into a zombie. So what was different on this morning? Where had the energy materialised from? The answer boils down to just one word – sleep. I’m the mother of a newborn baby, and for the first time in nine weeks, I had spent nine blissful hours in the Land of Nod. My son slept from 9pm until 4:30am, then after a feed and a cuddle, he went back to sleep until 9:30am.

 

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m a huge advocate of the importance of sleep. As I’ve written about previously, despite what some of the world’s most influential people would have you believe (ahem, Donald Trump), most healthy, successful people actually get more sleep, not less. With recent research linking poor sleep to many chronic diseases and demonstrating that lack of sleep may have not only been one of the causes of my autoimmune disease, but that it also exacerbated my symptoms, I now make sleep one of my top priorities.

 

I recently wrote about all this in a blog post dedicated to sleep deprived people and one of the readers of that post asked me what I knew about how much sleep we need. Nico wrote about his “magnificent girlfriend” who “definitely requires a few more hours asleep daily” than he does. He asked, “Have you any advice/knowledge on whether the recommended 7-9 hour nightly sleep is a normative necessity for all people? Can some individuals require more (9+ hours) or less (7- hours) than what is advised?”

 

This is such a great query. After all, there is a whole lot more we could get done by staying awake for an extra two hours. So when I had the chance to interview one of the world’s leading sleep experts, I asked him that very question.

 

German scientist Till Roenneberg from Ludwig-Maximilian University, is an expert in the field of chronobiology (the study of our biological rhythms) and draws on data collected from more than 55,000 people to study our sleep needs. It’s commonly thought that we should all be aiming for about eight hours sleep each night, though occasionally news stories carry headlines like “Why Seven Hours of Sleep Might be Better than Eight”. When I asked Ronneberg what we really know about how much sleep we should be getting, his response was surprising. “Nothing,” he said bluntly. So I asked him to elaborate. “I really mean it. We don’t really know how much. We know how much people on average get, but do we don’t know whether that is the right amount.”

 

It seems the confusion comes down to the fact that we are all different – different genders, different ages, different daily activities. All these differences mean that we all need a different amount of sleep. That said, there are some evidence-based rough guidelines we can use. In 2009 a rare genetic mutation was discovered that allows some people to sleep less than 6.25 hours a night with no negative effect. Unfortunately, it’s thought that this super power is limited to less than one percent of the population. For the rest of us, depending on our age and gender, most of us need somewhere between seven to nine hours of sleep every night. Toddlers need around thirteen hours, including a daytime nap. Teenagers need around nine and a half hours, and women tend to need more sleep than men. The amount of sleep you need from day to day will also vary. Studying for exams, preparing for a major presentation at work, training for a marathon – these kinds of activities all demand more from you, and as a result, you’ll need more sleep.

 

Fortunately there’s a very simple way to determine how much sleep you as an individual will generally need, which I’ve outlined at the end of this post. When I did this simple exercise for myself, the results were stunning. At the time I was getting about seven hours of shut eye on a good night, but I discovered that I’m a nine hour woman. Anything short of that leaves me depleted. Given that I’ve been getting five to seven hours of broken sleep since my nine-week-old son came into the world, it’s little wonder I’ve been feeling flat.

 

I’m not alone in not getting enough sleep. The US National Health Interview Survey of more than 250,000 people found that almost 30 percent of men and women were sleeping less than six hours each night. According to the UK Mental Health Foundation, over 30 percent of the population suffers from insomnia. An Australian study found that kids around the world are being affected too and are losing on average 37 minutes each night of recommended sleep.

 

Ronneberg explained that part of the problem is that we all have different biological rhythms that mean we like to sleep at different times. Some people are night owls, others are morning larks. This “social jet lag”, as Ronneberg calls it, may well be one of the reasons we’re suffering the health consequences of not getting enough sleep. For instance, when researchers experimentally disrupted people’s sleep cycle they found a significant deterioration in mood, which goes towards explaining why a high prevalence of anxiety, depression and other mood disorders is reported among shift workers who’s sleep rhythms are constantly being challenged. “If we could change society so that people can actually sleep in their sleep windows, we would not only know very more about how much sleep we actually need, we would all be very much healthier, because we would get the sleep at the right time and the right amount that we individually need,” said Roenneberg who advocates for a different way of living according to our individual sleep needs.

 

Unfortunately at the moment I’m operating on the sleep schedule that nine-week-old Isaac determines and, alas, my nine hours of bliss seems to have been a one-off for now. There is good news though if you’re regularly doing shift work or, like me, facing some other unavoidable obstacle to getting enough sleep regularly. A study from the University of Pennsylvania found that one or two nights of good sleep was enough to help people rebound from five nights of sleeping too little. That said, it can take weeks, and sometimes longer, to recover from long term sleep deprivation. My fingers are crossed that little Izzy Harvey gets the hang of this whole day and night thing in near future.

 

Find Out How Much Sleep You Need

 

Schedule a week that you can dedicate to sleeping. Go to sleep when you’re tired and get up in the morning when you feel refreshed, without an alarm. Limit your caffeine and alcohol consumption as well as your exposure to blue light after sunset (more about that here). During the day, get out into the sunlight and exercise. After a week or so you should have paid off any accumulated sleep debt and you’ll start finding your natural rhythm. (Please note that if you do all this and you’re still experiencing trouble sleeping, it might be time to talk to a doctor or experts at a sleep clinic.)

  • Bob

    This is really interesting information. Thanks for it.

  • Ted

    I read somewhere that also important is the time of night that we go to sleep.

    Our circadian rhythm was set for millions of years, a few years before late-night work and TV and the internet. Basically, when the sun went down, humans started powering down. There was fire and story-telling, but then, off to bed (or dirt or rock or whatever they had).

    What they're finding is that a few hours after sunset is the best time to head to bed, do a little reading, then sleep…somewhere between the hours of 8:00 pm and midnight (though, I'm toast if I go to bed past 10:00). Between those hours, we get all the REM and non-REM sleep we need to function optimally. I guess the rest of the night is gravy!

    http://time.com/3183183/best-time-to-sleep/

  • Nic O’Connor

    What a magnificent post Shannon! And thanks very much for giving such a detailed response to my question! I think my girlfriend will be pleased with this response… :-)

  • http://www.theconnection.tv/ Shannon

    Your thoughts are very interesting Bob. Thanks for taking the time to comment. When I was researching sleep for a chapter in my forthcoming book I was fascinated to come across a paper which describes
    Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep as being so important that some researchers describe it as a third state of consciousness.[1]


    [1] Chow, H. M., Horovitz, S. G., Carr, W. S., Picchioni, D., Coddington, N., Fukunaga, M., … Braun, A. R. (2013). Rhythmic alternating patterns of brain activity distinguish rapid eye movement sleep from other states of consciousness. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(25), 10300–10305. http://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1217691110
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3690889/?tool=pubmed

  • http://www.theconnection.tv/ Shannon

    You're spot on Ted. Thanks for sharing the link. I'll write more about this topic more in the future. It's so interesting.

  • http://www.theconnection.tv/ Shannon

    Hi Nico, thanks for asking such a great question! I guess with all the extra time you have while your girlfriend is sleeping, you'll be able to make her spectacular breakfasts. :-)

  • Nic O’Connor

    This seems like a pretty good idea to me 😉

  • Eduardo

    Good article. In Netflix in the documentary "The mystery of sleep" explains the importance of the REM sleep and how this affect our brain in many ways.

  • http://www.theconnection.tv/ Shannon

    Thanks Eduardo, I'll check it out.

  • janec71

    *****For anyone having trouble with sleep.*****
    Buying a pair of blue light blocking glasses (AUD$20-30) is probably the best thing you can do!

    Due to a medication that blocked the fall asleep hormone my sleep was trashed and it was life destroying. After reading Shannon's article I immediately bought a pair of the blue light blocking glasses. I started to wear them everyday when the sun went down and my sleep improved pretty much instantly (after trying a kazillion other things).

  • http://www.theconnection.tv/ Shannon

    Wow. Wow. Wow. You have made my day. I tell everyone I meet about how this changed my sleep and changed my life and rarely does anyone actually take me seriously. Hearing from you warms my heart. Thank you for taking the time and letting me know it worked for you too!

  • Bob

    Thanks for sharing this info. I tried it out, and it does seem like sleeping between sunset and midnight does lead to really good sleep that recharges one's energy a lot. It seems like there really is something to it.

  • Sadhna Monteiro

    Dear all
    Thanks a lot for the post and comments.
    What about sleeping issues? Regarding mind/body approach is there any good technique or author i can read about?
    Sleep has a major interference on my daily life…

    Namaste
    Sadhna

  • http://www.theconnection.tv/ Shannon

    Hi Sadhna,

    Great question. As I've written about before, I too have suffered from insomnia. (https://theconnection.tv/how-i-learned-to-get-a-good-nights-sleep/)

    One thing that helped me enormously is mindfulness.

    Interestingly, the Mindfulness Based Stressed Reduction (MBSR) program has been shown to be comparable to medication. – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3077056/

    Check out the Center for Mindfulness to find out more about MBSR – http://www.umassmed.edu/cfm/

    Cheers,
    Shannon

  • Sadhna Monteiro

    Dear Shannon
    Thanks for your quick answer and love.
    I work with hipnoteraphy, nutrition, liver and colon cleanse meditation and so on.
    All my patients improve and get healed at there rythm and their own way.
    I also improved but i am far to be ok….
    So i am always looking for new things (which normally are old i just didnt know them before) which can help me and my patients.
    Have a blessed week ❤🙏

  • janec71

    Hey, glad to know that I made your day!

    I actually internet searched for and bought that glasses immediately after reading the article.

    And, THANK YOU for changing my life and ending a life destroying phenomenon.

  • janec71

    PS I'm an OMSer (Prof Jelinek's program) and from the 'What ever it takes camp'.

About the author: Shannon Harvey

Shannon Harvey is a journalist and producer who was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease when she was 24 years old. Although doctors meant well, none could offer her a cause or a cure. Since then Shannon has been researching the latest scientific research linking her mind and body to health outcomes. Nearly 10 years have passed since her diagnosis and today Shannon is well and not taking medication. Shannon has worked as a television, radio and online journalist and producer and has a Master’s degree in Communications. She worked for the ABC and Fairfax before starting her own production company, Elemental Media. Shannon is the director of the feature film The Connection.

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