Healthy Living

How Much Sleep Do You Really Need? | by Tudor Alexander | Jan, 2024

I went to private school for most of my academic life, and in elementary school our grading system was pretty strict compared to our public school friends. To get an “A” for example, you had to get a 94% instead of the usual 90% cutoff at most other places. It’s funny how certain numbers drill their way into your head, and today as I look at my sleep stats and see the 94% score for one of my nights — I get a warm, fuzzy feeling knowing that what I share on my health blog regarding sleep actually does work.

Before we get into all of these valuable life hacks though, how much sleep do you actually need? That’s our topic today, and it’s a big one in an ever-stressful world. Also, is all sleep created equal or are there more significant types of sleep than others? This is another important question, and we will answer both of them in this article.

For a guide where I discuss over 20 sleep resources for better sleep, go here.

So, how much?

The first question, how much sleep we need, has a medical answer and personal answer. If you’re a baby, the amount of sleep you need is over 14 hours,(1) but if you’re 70 years or older then you may need just 6 or 7.(2) Too much or too little sleep (less than 6 hours and greater than 9 hours) is a red flag and significantly correlated with all-cause mortality,(3–10) and the effects of consistent “sleep debt” (meaning, the difference between what you need and what you’re actually getting every night) are well documented:(11,12) increases in stress hormones, dysregulation of the endocrine system, poor sugar metabolism, brain and cardiac issues and a whole host of metabolic problems are related to accumulated sleep debt and poor-quality sleep over the course of your life.

Interestingly, even seemingly healthy people who were unwittingly missing an hour of sleep every night (and therefore accumulating sleep debt) may potentially be creeping into serious long-term health consequences. According to this research, just one hour of potential sleep debt may take 4 hours of sleep to be paid back,(13) but don’t worry too much because this doesn’t mean you can accumulate thousands of hours of needed payback either. The point is that, even small misalignments between what you need and what you’re actually getting will add up over time and necessitate a dedicated plan (and patience) to fully refresh and recover.

Also, if your plan is to be a weekend sleep warrior — think again. Research enforces the idea that good sleep is a good practice, meaning that going from one extreme (low sleep during the week) to another (oversleeping on the weekend) is just as bad for your health as missing sleep in the first place.(14) Don’t rely on naps either. I love to nap in a lazy afternoon, but doing so more than an hour is likely to push your nighttime sleep back and screw up your circadian rhythm.(15) If you find the need to nap often, this is a sign that your body is under sleep debt, you’re diet needs improvement (usually people get tired after a heavy lunch which taxes the body) or you aren’t recovering properly from the sleep you are getting during the night because your body isn’t fully relaxed.

The Journey of Healing

Instead of playing these desperate ping-pong games with your sleep, opt for consistency and a great daily routine with great habits. It’s not always easy, but taking a hard look at your schedule, attitudes, habits and beliefs is a must if you want to develop a good sleep practice. For years, I thought that as long as I would get at least 4 hours, I’d be “functional.” This is not a good strategy for your life, and while shooting for the optimal 7–9 recommended by the research may be difficult at times, the key is also to establish good habits to maximize the time you can spend sleeping so that you recover as much as possible.

Living a “push through it” mentality will eventually catch up to you, and when it does it’s really not fun. There are many thieves that rob sleep, (I document over 20 in this article) but the ones you can immediately control are your internal belief systems. Behind every excuse, reason or justification of why you miss sleep or have to stay up is a limiting belief that is keeping you from fully recovering. Again, there are times when external variables are just uncontrollable, like having kids. As you endeavor to take on new health changes (like a new supplement), this journey itself may influence the quality of your sleep.

Still, we focus on what we can control and take responsibility for where we’ve come.

This is the beginning of healing your relationship with sleep, and as you heal, your body will naturally go through different phases. This may entail sleeping a little longer for a time or going to bed earlier. Listen to your body. Ideally, you need to drop the alarm clock and let your body wake you up naturally if you want to recover the fastest. This way, just like intuitive eating or intuitive moving, you are listening to your body and allowing it to do what it needs. If you have an early wake up time for work, focus on shifting your circadian rhythm so that you can sleep earlier. If it’s impossible to cut the alarm out for now, get a gentle alarm that won’t jolt you awake in the morning instead.

Ideally, you should hit the sack early and wake up without an alarm clock. In this way, you’ll pay back your sleep debt and avoid incurring any more of it going forward. Combined with the other interventions I’ve discussed (like the 5 Pillars of Optimal Health) it will support your energy levels during the day, good sleep habits will keep you in optimal health for years to come. And while obtaining your required hours per night and waking up without an alarm is the ideal, the intensity of your sleep is also important. This is the amount of deep and REM sleep you get and it is key for waking up refreshed and ready to rock.

Not All Sleep is Equal

Both REM and deep sleep are important for the mental benefits of sleep, but deep sleep is more significant in terms of your physical sense of recovery.(16–18) The science is still out on how much of each we need for optimal functioning, and the amounts can vary between individuals and between nights. In general, it’s good to shoot for about 1.5 hours to 2 hours for each, or 20–25% of your sleep time for each. That means that in a healthy night of sleep about half of your sleep should be in these highly restorative states if you want to feel your best the next day.

Naturally, the question is, how do we get more of these valuable states during our sleep? After all, you could be getting your 7–9 hours but they could be very restless and empty, dominated by light sleep and offering little rejuvenation in the morning. This is the key because remember that you can’t control your sleep overtly like you can taking a supplement at a particular time. Nevertheless, you can influence the quality of your sleep indirectly through various interventions. Everything I discuss in general on health will help you, but consistency is one of the most documented and important factors overall.(19,20)

Tudor Alexander is a certified health coach, former professional athlete and trainer and host of the Dance of Life Podcast. Any information shared in this article is done solely for educational purposes and is not intended to diagnose, treat or cure any disease. Always consult your health team before implementing any new change in your health regimen.

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