How Much Sleep Do I Need?
Individual sleep need is like height – we are all different and it is, to a large degree, genetically determined. Anywhere between four and eleven hours can be considered normal but getting just one hour less sleep a night than you require can have measurable effects on your physical and mental health.
Your personal sleep need is essentially the amount of sleep that allows you to feel awake, alert, and refreshed during the following day. Very simply, if you feel sleepy during the day then you are probably not, for whatever reason, getting the sleep you need during the night. So, if you only need four hours sleep a night to feel at you best during the day attempting to get eight hours sleep means that you are trying to get something you don’t need and can’t get anyway. If you need eleven hours to be at your best, cutting your sleep down to eight hours, because this is what is ‘recommended’, just means you will be significantly sleep deprived. Because sleep need is analogous to height it should be clear that you cannot ‘train’ yourself to need less sleep.
Are You A Lark Or An Owl?
How to determine whether you are a lark or an owl? Do you find yourself wanting to go to sleep relatively early and have no problem getting up early, and eager to start the day? If the answer is ‘yes’, you’re probably a lark. If you answered ‘no’ then you may be an owl. Owls want to go to bed late and find it difficult to get up and out of bed first thing in the morning. (For a more scientifically valid way to measure whether you are a lark or an owl search for a copy of the Horne and Ostberg morningness and eveningness questionnaire.)
Because of the genetic predisposition it is not possible for you to ‘train’ yourself to become a lark or owl. All that you can really do is learn to how cope with the effects of being out of phase and to reduce the impact.
Sleepy Or Tired?
A simple example to demonstrate the difference between sleepy and tired is to imagine you have to walk up three flights of stairs, when you get to the top do you need to sit down or sleep? If you need to sit down then you are tired/fatigued/knackered/exhausted, if you need to sleep then you are sleepy and if you are sleepy during the day you have a problem with your sleep.
While naps do not necessarily make up for inadequate or poor‐quality night‐time sleep, a short nap of 20–30 minutes (aka a ‘power nap’) can restore alertness, enhance performance, and reduce mistakes and accidents. The increase in alertness following a nap may persist for a few hours.
The ultimate ‘power nap’ is to drink two cans of a functional energy drink, like Red Bull, just before the nap. The caffeine will take approximately 30 minutes to start working so you will get the benefit both of the nap coupled with the boost of the caffeine.
Three Pillars of Restful Sleep
There are many causes of poor sleep. Some people’s problems are serious enough that they will need the intervention of their GP. But for most people there are things they can do for themselves to improve their sleep. Everyone seemingly wants the ‘Top 10 Tips’ for a good night’s sleep as though they believe that there really are 10 magic rules that will help everyone sleep, unfortunately this is not the case. Unless an individual is sick or severely sleep deprived it is not possible to have a period of refreshing sleep totally at will, both the mind and body need to be made ready for sleep. For this there are three general principles.
- A quiet mind. ‘All worry and vexatious circumstances should as far as possible be habitually excluded from the mind for a considerable time before the regular hour of retiring.’ J. Leonard Corning, Brain Rest (1885).
- A relaxed body. ‘Before going to bed, the body ought to be brought into that state which gives us the surest chance of relapsing speedily into sleep.’ Robert Macnish, The Anatomy of Sleep (1830).
- A bedroom conducive to sleep.
Anything that helps you achieve a quiet mind and relaxed body will help you sleep. Thus, as an individual you need to find your own way to sleep, whatever that may be. Remember the adage; ‘one man’s relaxation is another man’s torture’; what works for someone else may not work for you.
During the Day
The best way to get a good night’s sleep is to be awake during the day. Daytime exercise, both physical and mental, can promote good sleep. It is also important to get adequate exposure to natural light during the day, as this is the major signal to the brain that it is time to be awake.
Going to Bed
Go to bed when you are sleepy, not when the TV programme you are watching finishes or when you bed partner wants to go to sleep. Most people’s preparation for sleep seems to involve nothing more than turning the TV off, having a pee, brushing their teeth and then getting into bed and expecting to fall asleep, then being surprised that it does not happen. Thus, one of the most important things you can do is to establish a regular relaxing bedtime routine, think of those lovely examples given in the Introduction. This will signal to the body that it is time for sleep and will allow you to put the stresses and worries of the day behind you. You should spend at least 30 minutes winding down before bed. This means turning the TV/computer off and doing those things that help you quieten the mind and relax your body. So, don’t work, don’t argue with your partner, don’t open the gas bill, and so on. It is important that you don’t try to fall asleep, the harder you try the more worked up you will get because you aren’t falling asleep, so the less likely you are to actually fall asleep.
During the Night
If you are tossing and turning for more than 30 minutes at the start of the night or 20 minutes during the night it may be helpful to get out of bed, or switch the light on, and do something else, only going back to bed when you feel sleepy again. If you still don’t fall asleep again get up, do something else and go back to bed when you are sleepy. Nothing is worse than lying in bed trying to fall asleep and getting ever more frustrated that you can’t, you start hating your pillow for being uncomfortable and hating your partner for having the temerity to be peacefully asleep, you know they are only doing this to annoy you. This is not conducive to falling back to sleep.
In the Morning
The body craves regularity, so having a regular wake up time can be a very positive change in terms of improving sleep. This is because the body actually starts preparing to wake up about one and a half hours before you actually awake. Therefore, if your body knows when it is going to wake then it can maximise the sleep opportunity as well as prepare itself to wake up. However, if it does not know when you are going to wake it cannot prepare and thus you are liable to feel groggy when you wake. If you need a bit of assistance in waking in the morning, buy an alarm clock. The vast majority of people these days use their mobile phone as their alarm clock which puts this ‘instrument of sleep disruption’ in easy reach, for you to check what is going on before sleep and when you wake in the night. However you are awakened, don’t hit snooze! Set the alarm for the time you have to get up, and then get up.
Sleep Well, Live Better
It is your sleep and it is your life. Sleeping well is a decision you have to make. You can either choose to go through life feeling at your best, happy, focused, alert, healthy, productive. Or you can choose to experience life through the fog of sleepiness.
To feel better each day, you need to sleep better each night. Ideally you need to determine the amount of sleep you need to feel at your best and then you need to give your body and mind the time to get it. Yes, cleaning the kitchen, catching up on personal emails, or watching your favourite show are important, but not nearly as important as getting good sleep.
This really is a great time to be alive, but we also live in a world where it has never been more important to get good sleep.
Sleep well, live better.