During the hectic hurricane of life, it can be a challenge to get a good night’s sleep. Being fully rested is essential to tackling the many challenges that come with the sunrise, but at times it doesn’t seem possible to fit in the many hours we need into our already packed schedules. When deciding what to cut when it comes to crunch time, sleep is often the first thing to go.
How much sleep do you need to really be a functioning member of society? When deciding on bedtime or when to set the alarm for the next morning, standard logic dictates that more is better. If a little sleep can be rejuvenating, why not go for a full 12 hours? Unfortunately, the answer is not so cut and dry.
The Amount of Sleep You Need Varies
People tend to assume that 8 hours is the magic, although often unattainable, number we need to sleep at night, but this is not always the case. Most sleep scientists say adults should get 7-9 hours, but can vary based on age and your circumstances. The younger you are, the more sleep you need because your body is still developing. As you age, you may find that your head doesn’t have to spend as much time on the pillow at night. Everyone goes through different stages in life that require unique treatment. Just because you could survive on a power nap and energy drinks in college does not mean you can do that now.
On the flipside, just because I have to sleep for 9 hours every night now, doesn’t mean it will always be that way. Also, if you are very stressed or very ill, you need more sleep. In those times, our bodies need to regenerate to recover from the damage they have experienced. Unfortunately, stress can often be the reason why we have difficulty sleeping at night, creating a vicious cycle that has to be broken before you can become fully rejuvenated. This is where listening to your body and what it needs is important so you find the balance in your sleep needs.
How to Tell if You Need More Sleep
If you are anything like me, it is safe to assume that you likely short yourself on sleep most nights. There are signs you can watch for if you are unsure if you are burning the candle at both ends too often during the week. First, if you tend to walk into a room and forget why you walked in there, you might be sleep deprived. Without the correct amount of sleep, it is more difficult for your brain to form memories, making it harder to remember exactly where you put your keys. Your brain relies on sleep to help it run at peak efficiency and without that much needed shut eye, it begins to malfunction.
Another way it may be malfunctioning is it by telling you you’re hungry, when you’re not. There are two hormones that control your appetite: leptin and ghrelin. Leptin tells you to stop eating and ghrelin tells you if you’re hungry. When you’re tired, the balance between these hormones is thrown out of whack and your body tells you it’s hungry even when it isn’t. So if you find yourself craving that bag of potato chips more often than usual, you might want to hit the sack a little earlier the next night.
If you are sleep deprived you also have difficulty focusing, become clumsier, have difficulty with your speech and may fight more with your significant other. You may also become more impulsive. Because the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain in charge of impulse control) is affected by sleep, it isn’t able to prevent you from splurging on that new pair of shoes. Finally, if you are falling asleep within 5 minutes every night or are sleeping during movies, it might not be because the movie is boring but because you aren’t getting enough sleep at night. Being aware of these trends in your behavior can help you gage if you need to up the amount of hours you sleep you get each night.
Be Aware of Your Sleep Deficit
At this point you might think that all you need to fix the problems caused by a lack of sleep is a couple of days with extra shut eye. However, if you find you are regularly shorting yourself on sleep, you are actually accumulating a sleep deficit the same as if you were shorting your bank account. For example, if you stay up an hour later every night to finish a big project, by the end of the week you are actually short a full 7 hours of sleep, which is the same as pulling an all-nighter. If you regularly do this, you may be putting yourself in a difficult position.
This sleep debt accumulates over time, leading to chronic sleep deprivation and serious health problems like heart disease and obesity. Even if you get the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep, most nights, you have to keep track of the nights you lose sleep and make up for them by allowing more sleep on other days. If you have spent years shorting yourself on sleep, it might be time to take a vacation that involves very little activity and allow your body to sleep as much as it needs. Upping your sleep for a short amount of time might be enough to get your sleep schedule back on track, helping you to figure out the actual amount of sleep you should be getting on a regular basis.
Avoid Sleeping Too Much
Too little sleep is bad, and so is excessive sleeping. If you are chronically sleep deprived, it is important to get more sleep at night, but for everyone more is not always better. Sometimes it may be tempting to pull a Rip Van Winkle and nap for 20 years, but it is important to stay in that 7-9 hour range for sleep. Although there are a few people who can survive on less sleep and some do need more, most people are better off sticking with those recommended numbers.
If you find yourself pushing those limits or asking yourself, “Why do I sleep so much?” there might be some serious health concerns such as hypersomnia or sleep apnea. If you find yourself excessively tired and oversleeping regularly, consider talking with your doctor about your issues with sleep. However, if you don’t have any medical reasons to sleep more than 9 hours, consider cutting back on the amount of time you spend in bed. Studies have found that regularly sleeping for more than nine hours does not improve your health and can actually be harmful. It is actually the quality of sleep that matters more than the quantity because uninterrupted sleep allows your body to transition smoothly through the sleep cycles to allowing it to fully rejuvenate.
Think Before You Drink
It might feel like you need to drink those five cups of coffee to make it through the day, but you might want to consider your caffeine intake if you are having issues with sleep. Drinking a lot of caffeine during the day, especially if you drink it later in the afternoon, can impact how quickly you fall asleep at night. Because it is a stimulant that can stay in your body for hours after you think the effects have worn off drinking it too late in the day can interfere with bedtime.
It is best to stop drinking any caffeine after 2pm and to start to limit the amount you drink during the day. If you drink the equivalent of more than 4 cups of coffee a day, you are probably drinking too much. Start to taper off the amount of caffeine you drink during the day and if you’re still tired after 2pm, it probably means you need more sleep at night. By cutting out the extra caffeine, you can better understand how much rest you need and figure out your rhythm of sleep at night.
Instead of caffeine, consider drinking more water. Dehydration can lead to feeling fatigued. Other symptoms of sleep deprivation, such as lack of concentration and tiredness might be because you are not drinking enough water. Much like sleep, water is rejuvenating for your body and necessary for proper brain function. So if you find that you are tired during the day, try to drink more water. If that solves your problems, you might be getting enough sleep at night.
Some say that our bodies are like machines, others like temples, but either way we need to be aware of how they function and listen to the workings of all our moving parts. If you have trouble with a lack of sleep or excessive sleeping, it might be time to rethink your bed time strategies. Oftentimes sleep is our last priority on our to do list, but if we want to live a fulfilling life it needs to be moved higher up to ensure a balance to our life. Maybe then you can finally crack the complex code of sleep and figure out exactly how many hours you need to sleep to live your best life.