One of the biggest debates around sleep concerns quantity. Just how much sleep do we really need and what defines this? Google it and you’ll find every answer under the sun – and a few more. With the help of Dr. Frida Rångtell from the Department of Neuroscience at Uppsala University, we attempted to turn down the white noise and get to the truth.

Why sleep matters

You’ve surely heard the statistic. You spend up to one-third of your life asleep. Resisting the temptation to say ‘think how many more episodes of Game Of Thrones I could cram in’, let’s instead think about what sleep actually does for us. No matter your age or circumstances, sleep fulfills many important physical and psychological functionsThese include –  

  • Rebuilding muscles
  • Clearing up harmful waste in the brain
  • Processing and responding to the day’s emotions and experiences including learning and memory
  • Regulating emotions – lack of sleep makes us more likely to experience negative emotions when we’re awake
  • Regulating vital physical functions such as appetite control, metabolic functions and immune system

Now, looking at that rather impressive list might make you think twice about neglecting to sleep – and with good reason! Sleep deprivation can have a profound effect on our lives. So just how much is right for you? Let’s start with a little myth busting. 

Is the 8-hour rule really true?

Most of us are familiar with the expression ‘make sure you get your eight hours’. Like many of these ‘established truths,’ there’s a little more to it than meets the eye. Over to our sleep expert Dr. Rångtell –

“Well, actually, sleeping 7-9 hours for a grown-up is correlated with many health benefits, so I would say that it is not a complete myth. What I would say is a myth, however, is that we need to sleep these hours in one ‘session’, without any interruption. All of us wake up several times during a night of sleep and most of the time we don’t even notice it. Also, it’s not only about the hours we put in. Sleep composition, effectiveness, and quality are all very important, in addition to time actually sleeping. A person sleeping 8 hours could still be getting insufficient sleep.”

To further complicate matters, we’re also regularly presented with the sleep and lifestyle patterns of celebritiesThe truth is, the amount of sleep we need is very individual and depends on several factors, the first of which is something, not even Hollywood movie stars can avoid – aging.

As we age, so do our sleep requirements

Moving through life’s different stages our sleep needs change. Generally, it can be said that as we grow older, we need to sleep less. But why is this? Over to you, Dr. Rångtell –

“It’s true that our sleep patterns change as we age. However, we don’t actually know if it is our sleep needs that change, the opportunities to sleep, or our ability to maintain the sleep we need. We might also change our sleep due to factors such as illness, medications, pain and the need to go to the bathroom more often during the night. There are also many other things that change as we age and these are also reflected in how we sleep. Think about what happens when we become pensioners – we may change our lifestyle habits or levels of physical activity and we may also have less fixed times that we need to follow. These changes can affect our sleep patterns – for example, we might find ourselves napping during the day.” 

Genetics can define your sleeping needs

We are all a product of genetics. In terms of sleep, this means that certain people carry certain genetics that mean they can get by with 5 to 6 hours a night without experiencing any side effects – although we would not recommend this as a rule. 7 to 9 hours is better. The flip side is that genetics can also cause some of us to be more sensitive when it comes to sleep deprivation. So what can we do about our genes? In short, not much. Just listen to what your body tells you and try to develop the sleeping patterns that make you feel at your best.

In the search for quantity, don’t forget quality

Quantity is also affected by quality. 10 hours of poor sleep is not necessarily as healthy as 7 hours of good sleep. That’s why it’s important to ensure that all the factors for getting a good night’s sleep such as room temperature, lighting, pre-bedtime routines and eating habits have been considered. And last but not least, it’s also worth considering the magical effect of taking a power nap can have on our sleeping routines too.