How Much Sleep Do We Need?

It’s the (multi) billion dollar question really, and it’s something everybody should be interested in: just how much sleep should we be getting each night?

There are many different opinions and schools of thought around this issue but surprisingly, considering how much research seems to be done these days on every aspect of our lives, it’s still up in the air. Most people (in the western world, at least) would probably consider around 8 hours to be the optimal amount of sleep that we should get. But, is this right? And where did this figure come from? Is it, instead, more important to get quality sleep, rather than a certain amount of sleep?

It’s such a complex question and it’s something that affects all of us. Sleep is vital for basically every aspect of life, and it can even be argued that it’s equally as (or maybe more) important than some of the things we count as necessities (the UN has declared that internet access is a basic human right, for instance).

What does the science say?

A 2017 study found that the average Australian was getting about 7 hours of sleep per night and the Australian Sleep Health Foundation recommends (as does the American equivalent) that an adult between 18 and 64 get between 7 and 9 hours of sleep per night. So, seeing as Aussies are getting an average amount at the very bottom end of this scale, it’s likely that we’re not allowing ourselves quite as much rest as we need. However, where did the Sleep Health Foundation recommendation come from?

Essentially what they did, was they gathered 18 leading sleep scientists and researchers and had them analyse hundreds of sleep studies and publications. The whole process took over 2 years and was fairly exhaustive. The specialists came from organisations such as the Society for Research in Human Development and the Gerontological Society of America.

The study found that teenagers and children tend to need more sleep than adults and, in theory, you need slightly less sleep as you age. Whether this is actually the case is up for debate, but the important thing to take from this exhaustive study was that we need about 7 to 9 hours of sleep.

There are some sleep specialists though, that argue that the 8 hour or 7 to 9 hour average is a myth, including a leading (recently retired) neuroscientist from Loughborough University in the UK. He argues that it doesn’t really matter how long scientists say you should be sleeping for; it’s more important to assess whether you’re tired or not during the day. If you work in a job where you’re likely to notice tiredness (such as an office job), and you’re finding that you’re often struggling to stay awake, it’s likely that you’re not receiving enough quality sleep, even if you’re “sleeping” for 9 hours.

It’s really no use getting 8 hours of sleep if you’re waking up every 20 minutes, as your brain isn’t given the opportunity to work it’s magic in REM and NREM sleep. REM sleep is particularly important for (among other things) memory, learning and for detoxifying our brains. Similarly, if you’re getting “only” 6 hours of sleep a night, but feel reasonably energetic all day at work, there’s a good chance you’re getting enough quality sleep. You could always try and sleep for a little longer and see if that has a beneficial effect but it’s likely that, in that scenario, you’re getting about the right amount and your sleep is of decent quality.

“…it doesn’t really matter how long scientists say you should be sleeping for; it’s more important to assess whether you’re tired or not during the day”.

When you’re waking up in the night constantly (like I used to for years), you’ll still probably feel tired, even if you’ve “slept” for 9 hours. So, even though you can give yourself the opportunity to sleep for the recommended time, you still need to make sure that your sleep has a good platform. What I mean by this, is that you are doing things throughout the day to give your brain the opportunity to get the right kind of sleep. We call these things collectively “sleep hygiene”.

For example, if you’re scrolling through instagram for an hour (in bed) before you go to sleep, it’s likely that you’re weakening the association in your brain between your bedroom and sleep, as well as stifling the melatonin production that eventually leads to a healthy and restful sleep. You’re much more likely to wake up during the night and to spend longer at the start and end of your sleep in a lighter state of sleep, rather than sleeping more deeply for the entire period. This is an example of poor sleep hygiene and you shouldn’t be using screens with blue backlights, like mobile phones and tablets, for around an hour before bed. You also shouldn’t be using your bedroom for any activities other than sleep and sex.

Also, if you have lots of light in your bedroom, or you’ve had a scalding hot shower before bedtime, this is also bad sleep hygiene. The light makes it more difficult to stay (and remain) asleep and a hot shower right before bed will obviously make your body temperature warmer, which makes it much harder to get to sleep, as your body should be reducing its body temperature at that time.

So, how much sleep do we need?

All in all, it’s probably not a bad idea to get somewhere in the vicinity of 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night. This is the amount that most experts and specialists recommend and is backed up by a lot of scientific research. Equally though, making sure you have good quality sleep is just as vital and it might be better to focus on your sleep hygiene, before you worry about whether you got 8 hours last night.

For a quick few tips on how to improve your sleep, check out my previous blog post “4 Ways to Improve Your Sleep Tonight”.