After a hard day, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone that doesn’t enjoy the feel of fresh sheets as they snuggle in their bed, falling asleep in their favorite place and waking refreshed after a good nights’ sleep. But what is a good night’s sleep? Are you awake and ready to start the day after just a few hours of shut-eye or do you still hit the snooze button after a 10-hour stint? Although it is generally accepted that everyone is different when it comes to the need for sleep, being aware of the scientifically proven guidelines, even if your individual pattern differs, is a good starting place to achieve the best sleep you can. So how much sleep does the ‘average’ person need and how much sleep do you need? Let’s find out:
Why do we sleep?
Sleep is not just about hitting the required amount of hours snoring or dreaming. Sleep is part of the resting process which the human body needs to go through to remain healthy – think of sleep as simply part of that cycle. When you are resting, whether with your feet up on the sofa, relaxing in a soothing bath or lying in bed preparing to sleep, your body is regenerating and repairing. Sleep is merely a part of this cycle, albeit a very important one, where the most intense background work is carried out. Since your muscles and other components are not otherwise occupied, your brain begins supervising as your body diverts its attention to undoing the stresses of the day and preparing your cells for the next. Sleep gives your body and your brain the chance to carry out their duties at their optimum ability, so knowing the amount of sleep you need is vital to being the best you can be physically and psychologically. Without these vital hours you are not giving yourself the energy, creativity, motivation or ability to fulfill your potential.
According to science, how much does the ‘average’ person need?
We say ‘according to science’ for a reason. Some people certainly appear to need less or more sleep than the recommended, and there is even a gene present in 3% of the population that means they actually only ‘need’ 3 hours of shut-eye per night, but for the rest of us, it’s important to realize there is a difference between satisfying your body’s requirements and ‘getting by’. Let’s have a look at the recommendations:
Newborns (0-3 months): 14-17 hours each day
Infants (4-11 months): 12-15 hours
Toddlers (1-2 years): 11-14 hours
Preschoolers (3-5): 10-13 hours
School-age children (6-13): 9-11 hours
Teenagers (14-17): 8-10 hours
Younger adults (18-25): 7-9 hours
Adults (26-64): 7-9 hours
Older adults (65+): 7-8 hours
The National Sleep Foundation suggests that the above hours constitute a ‘good night’s sleep’ but also suggest that these hours can be shifted an hour or so each way to allow for what is appropriate to any given individual.
Why do children and teenagers need more sleep?
The increased hours in children and teenagers is attributed to the need for the body to grow and develop. Because sleep gives the body rest time to concentrate on these much-needed changes, longer sleep periods allow this to happen.
Do physically active adults need more sleep?
On reaching adulthood, most of the body’s growing and learning has slowed, so the need for sleep plateaus, reaching a steady 7-9 hours. This is where the variation on what is appropriate for individuals is most noticeable. Those who are very physically active may need more time for their body to heal than those who are desk-bound for most of their day. Even undertaking a further education course at this age will increase an individual’s sleep time as their brain processes, stores and makes available in the future the information it is being fed.
Do older people need more or less sleep?
Interestingly, many people believe that older people need less sleep, but this is open to debate. Although they appear to need nearly the same amount of time as younger adults, they certainly report getting less. Researches believe that the aging process disrupts their circadian rhythms so the older generation tend to go to bed earlier and rise earlier. In addition, there is a marked reduction in the length of good sleep in older people who generally take longer to fall asleep and have shorter periods of quality sleep during the night.
What are the benefits of sleeping well?
We’ve touched on the fact that getting enough sleep benefits you both physically and psychologically, but let’s go into a little more detail and highlight what sleeping well can do for you:
If you wake up with a clear head and a body full of energy, you are far more likely to hit the day running. Waking before your alarm clock means you can forget feeling sleeping in your meetings or losing half an hour to drowsiness after your lunch. With your brain and body working in harmony, you’ll get much more done in your day as your alertness remains peaked all day.
Those who sleep well are much less likely to feel stressed during the day and have a more positive outlook. In turn, they are better equipped to remain positive and resistant to stress and depression – ironically both linked to as a cause and symptom of insomnia.
The increased amount of sleep needed in a child’s formative years and even up until adolescence is attributed partly to allowing the body to learn. A growing brain is hungry for input and in order for things to be remembered – from the basics of speaking to the ability to recall and perform a sports skill – giving the brain the time to consider and plant that memory is critical and sleep allows that to happen naturally.
Whilst just one hours’ sleep deprivation can have a negative effect on judgment and coordination, the right amount of sleep can do wonders for your current and future health. It aids both heart and blood vessel repair and is vital for a healthy immune system which will protect the body against foreign or harmful substances, such as the common cold or more dangerous bugs.
Maintaining a healthy weight is closely linked to sleep as it controls the hormones that make you feel hungry or full. If you sleep correctly then your ghrelin levels, the hormone that makes you hungry, will remain suppressed and your leptin level will correctly tell your body when you have eaten enough and to feel full, avoiding the snacking and overeating often associated with feeling sleepy.
What if I don’t get enough sleep?
Sleep deprivation is not something to be taken lightly, as just one night of bad sleep can affect you dramatically.
In the short term, lack of sleep will lead to poor concentration, irritability, impaired decision making and motor skills – leading to an increased risk of accidents. These symptoms can be quickly reversed by catching up on sleep and returning to a normal sleep pattern.
However, in the long term, sleep deprivation can have much more severe and long-lasting effects such as a weakened immune system, weight gain, and increased risk of more serious and potentially fatal diseases and health problems such as stroke, high blood pressure, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and some cancers.
How can I get better sleep?
There are many things you can do to get a better night’s sleep and reach your sleeping hours’ goal. Here are just a few:
- Go to bed and get up at the same time each day, even at the weekends
- Allow time to wind down before hitting the pillow
- Exercise regularly (but not too close to your bedtime!)
- Make your sleeping environment as comfortable as you can with the correct lighting, bed and pillows, and temperature
- Address any stress or anxiety issues before bedtime and visit a doctor if necessary
- Avoid caffeine, alcohol and sugary drinks and food close to bedtime
- Turn off all electronics at least half an hour before bed and try not to have them close to the bed
- Try sleeping in an extra 30 minutes rather than getting an early night if you want to get the most benefit from an increase in your sleep time – the mind and body-boosting REM sleep cycles are longer in the morning