How Much Sleep Do We Really Need?
There are a couple things everyone on the plant does. We all go to the bathroom, we all need to eat and drink and we all need to sleep. The age old question still exists for many, however. How much sleep do we really need? To answer this question, a number of factors must be considered, which means the answer is different for each person.
Are you active? Are you young? Are you sick? And, even once that has been figured out, a second question remains for many. What is the point of sleep, and why do we need to do it? Answering this isn’t an easy task, but it’s one we can start taking a look at and seeing if we can come out the other end with a better understanding of sleep and why it’s something everyone absolutely needs.
What’s the Deal with Sleep, Anyway?
Before understanding how much sleep we need, perhaps it’s just as important for us to understand why we need sleep and how sleep actually affects our bodies.
Why Do We Need Sleep?
The most basic answer to this question is we need sleep in order for our body to rejuvenate itself. A good rest gives us energy, helps us focus, makes us generally feel better and helps our bodies heal from the day’s exertions.
On a grander scale, the why isn’t necessarily definable. Yes, we know sleeping is good for us, but why is it absolutely required, and why do we feel awful if we don’t get it? These are questions scientists have asked for years, and have studied, but they remain questions with answers which aren’t especially clear.
Though these studies, we have learned how sleep affects our bodies and what all happens while we’re getting our sleep on, so they haven’t all been wasted time.
What Happens During Sleep?
As we sleep, we go through two distinct stages, non-rapid eye movement sleep and rapid eye movement sleep, NREM and REM, respectively. Throughout the night, we move back and forth between these two distinct stages, completing a full cycle every 90 minutes or so. REM sleep is always your goal. This is the deep stage of sleep which helps you feel most rested, giving your brain and body the energy it needs to keep going throughout the day.
NREM sleep is what you experience through most of the night, though as the night progresses, assuming you’re sleeping all the way through the night, it gets shorter and shorter. Three stages comprise NREM sleep. N1 is what you experience just as you begin to fall asleep. Not much happens at this point. N2 begins right as you actually fall asleep. Your body temperature begins to drop and your breathing and heart rate become regular.
Moving into N3 is your deep sleep, just before REM sleep kicks in. This is the good stuff, helping your body in multiple ways. Your blood pressure drops, your breathing slows, your muscles become relaxed and healing begins. Sore muscles start getting more blood, and your body begins to heal and grow new tissue. At this point, your body also releases growth hormones, which is important for developing muscle, as well as for growth and development in our younger years.
Misconceptions About Sleep
When it comes to sleep, everyone thinks they’re an expert. Because of this, there have been numerous myths and general falsities spread over the years regarding the practice. Following this incorrect information can have a detrimental, if not life-threatening, impact on your health.
Take snoring, for instance. This is considered to be a common and probably and isn’t a big deal. On the contrary, snoring can be a sign of a major issue called sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is characterized by interrupted breathing during sleep. Essentially, you pretty much just stop breathing periodically during your sleep cycle, potentially hundreds of times. This means you aren’t getting the amount of required oxygen. To clarify, just because you snore doesn’t mean you suffer from sleep apnea, but snoring can be a sign of it, and it should be checked out when possible.
Another common misconception is the idea that sleep and physical health aren’t related. Sure, sleeping makes you feel better, but can not sleeping actually be detrimental to your health? Absolutely. Poor sleep can lead to obesity, high blood pressure, depression and more. Consider the stages of sleep. During stage N3, your blood pressure drops. If you’re not getting enough of that stage of sleep, your blood pressure isn’t getting a chance to naturally lower itself, which can lead to things like hypertension. Sleep and health are very tightly connected, so putting in your hours is very important.
Back to the Question: How Much Sleep?
I suppose we should look at the primary question, now. Before we get into the full answer, let’s begin by saying “it depends.” So many factors go into how much sleep we need, and much of it depends on your age and lifestyle.
Activity Levels and Sleep Requirements
Though they don’t have a drastic effect on the amount of sleep needed, you should take into consideration things about your lifestyle and health when determining how much sleep you need. Some of these may not be quite as you’d expect.
Active vs. Sedentary
Are you living a sedentary life? If so, you may need to get a bit more sleep than those who are active. Active people don’t need as much sleep, typically, because they healing effects of sleep aren’t as vital to them. Sure, they need to have their muscles get rebuilt after a long day of working out, but exercising releases endorphins which helps reduce stress, and healthier folks tend to have lower blood pressure.
Considering this, that part of sleep isn’t quite as necessary. A sedentary person would need to sleep more to keep all their levels in check. Active folk don’t have that issue, so people living a lifestyle in which they spend a lot of time sitting at work or at home are going to find themselves spending more time in bed, or at least needing to do so, so they can continue to function at a normal level and stay healthy.
Healthy vs. Sick
Not feeling well? Consider staying in bed a little longer this weekend. Studies performed on fruit flies had interesting, though not unexpected, results. Two different studies were performed, the first using fruit flies which either been sleep deprived or not sleep deprived.
The study found that that the flies which were sleep deprived fought bacteria which had been introduced into their system better than their counterparts. Because of the sleep deprivation, they flies slept more than they normally would have once the infection kicked in.
This suggested to scientists that getting more sleep after becoming sick helps your body fight off infections, though I wouldn’t recommend depriving yourself of sleep on a regular basis in order to sleep more on the odd chance you may get sick. Just give yourself a little more time in those situations.
The second test seems to reinforce the idea that you shouldn’t deprive yourself of sleep. For this study, fruit flies were genetically engineered to sleep more than they normally may. Upon being infected with bacteria, the flies which slept more were able to fight off the infection better and had a longer survival rate.
This test suggests sleeping more helps strengthen your immune system, giving you a better chance to not only avoid sickness, but to fight it off faster in the event you do catch some sort of bug. Sleep may take up a whole lot of time, but being sick takes up so much more.
The takeaway from all of this? Get enough sleep each night, and feel free to sleep in when you’re sick. This will give you a better chance of fighting off infections, and will help you beat them when they managed to hold.
Building Good Sleeping Habits
The first step to a healthier and more restful sleep, and one which you can reach must faster, is to make sure your sleeping habits aren’t running contradictory to your goals. There are a significant number of things you can do to keep yourself from having your best night of sleep, and just a few things you need to do to make sure you get it.
The Purpose of Your Bedroom
You may be a human being capable of complicated thoughts, but your body and mind are simple things which can develop both good and bad habits. One of the absolutely best ways to make sure you fall asleep quickly when you climb into bed is to make sure your body knows exactly why you’re in bed.
Take this scenario for instance. You spend most of your time in your bedroom watching television. You sit on the bed, turn on the TV and just watch it all night long. Now, bed time comes along and you climb into bed and what does your body do? It stays awake, because it thinks it’s time to watch television. This is a very simplistic example, but it’s an apt one.
Your bedroom should be used for a grand total of two purposes: sleep and sex. Your room needs to be your sanctuary so that, when you enter it, your body knows one of two things is going to happen, rather than one of a dozen things like watching TV, reading a book, chatting on the phone, or whatever the case may be.
Don’t Go Into the Light
Bright lights wake you up, it doesn’t matter from where they come. Spending time on your phone before bed, watching television before bed or having a number of bright lights on before bed won’t help you fall asleep any faster. It’s quite the contrary, really, with hot bright screens tending to energize your body into staying awake for longer than you’d like.
Even getting up to use the bathroom in the middle of the night can be detrimental to your sleep progress. If you find yourself needing to get up often in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, there are two things you should consider: First, you should go to the doctor and figure out why you need to constantly be peeing. Second, get a night light.
Waking up in the night and walking into a dark bathroom, then turning on the lights can quickly jolt your brain to fully awake mode, or at least something like it, for some time. This can make it exceedingly difficult to fall asleep after getting up for that late night potty break.
Keep Your Cool
Part of the process of your body’s progression into sleep is to reduce its temperature. Because of this, sleeping in a cool room can help you fall asleep and reach those deeper levels of sleep faster. In a way, you’re assisting with that cooling down process, thus tricking your body into getting better sleep.
Obviously, you don’t want it to be so cold you’re not comfortable. This would be counter to what you’re trying to do, as you likely won’t sleep as well and your body will be spending too much time trying to keep itself warm. This takes away the resources necessary to hit the deeper levels of sleep and make them successful.
Don’t Spice Up Your Life
If you love spicy foods, consider passing on them several hours before bedtime. Spicy foods, as well as foods high in acid or oil, can lead to issues with heartburn or acid reflux. This are terrible things to have wake you up in the night. If you just can’t avoid them, you may want to pop a couple of antacids before bed and cross your fingers that they kick in in time.
Where You Rest Your Bones
All of those tips are very important, and there are far more, but all the tips in the world won’t be especially helpful if you have a terrible bed. In order to get the right amount of sleep, and to make sure that sleep is the best it can be, you need to have a mattress which suits your needs while being comfortable.
In this day and age, there are a very large variety of mattress types. You’ve got your old-fashioned innerspring mattresses, you’ve got memory foam, you’ve got latex, you’ve got the new-fashioned innersprings and combinations of all of these. The perfect bed is out there for you, you just have to find it.
The right materials can make all the difference. With memory foam, you have a truly custom experience. Memory foam is a special type of polyurethane foam which has been structurally and chemically changed into viscoelastic foam. The way it works is actually quite interesting.
When you lay on a memory foam mattress, it’s going to feel pretty soft, but you won’t get the full effect right away. As you lay there, your body heat will slowly start having an effect on the mattress. It will begin to soften around you, becoming more viscous and giving way to your body. In this way, it creates something of a custom indention, making sure you’re comfortable in whichever position you choose to lie.
Memory foam comes in a variety of firmness levels, so you’ll have to give it a go to see which level works best for you. Memory foam comes with some downsides, as well. Because of the nature of memory foam, it tends to retain heat, potentially leaving you covered in sweat each morning. This has been combatted in a couple ways. You can either find memory foam which has been infused with gel beads, which help distribute heat, or you can get memory foam designed with an open cell structure, better allowing air to pass through and pull away the heat.
Latex foam is a cousin of memory foam, but is far more environmentally friendly. Latex foam can be made entirely from renewable resources, namely latex which comes from trees. There is a synthetic version, as well, but the renewable stuff is much better. Two methods of processing latex foam exist, and each makes the stuff a little different. The Dunlop method results in a more firm latex layer while the Talalay method brings about the option for multiple firmness levels and a lighter mattress.
Innersprings are what you’d expect, springs within the mattress. The old style of innersprings is slowly going the way of the dodo. Older mattresses, and some new ones, use a layer of interlocked springs. This is problematic because of the way movement can be shared across the bed. More modern beds which want to stick innersprings do so with a twist.
Individually wrapped innersprings are the way to go for those who want that innerspring support. Instead of sharing movement across the bed, and giving you aches and pains because it’s not shaping to your body, individually wrapped springs are able to move on their own. Because of this, they can better conform to your body, with only the ones receiving the weight being adjusted, rather than an entire linked group of springs.
Most mattresses out there today use a combination of these various methods, sometimes using one for a comfort layer while using another for a support layer. Polyfoam, the basic stuff you see in pretty much everything, is often used for some of these support layers. Technically, anything which combines these multiple types, especially one of the foams and the innersprings, would be a hybrid mattress.
Are you sleeping on the right sized bed? Before you answer that, ask yourself a few questions. Do you sleep alone? Are you tall? Are you an adult? Are you overweight? These are all rather important when it comes to making a decision on bed size.
If you’re a single person who is rather tall, you could consider getting a twin XL. Twins are a bit on the small side, as far as width goes, but they do offer a decent amount of legroom. Going with a full, however, could be a better choice, as you can get more room on either side.
The queen size bed is now one of the most common in America, and many people have begun to use them while sleeping alone, eschewing the full size bed.
If you’re on the larger side, a queen is probably the way to go. If you’re sleeping with a partner, a queen will get the job done, but a king is going to give you way more room, with a cost increase that doesn’t amount to a whole lot in the grand scheme of things.
Putting it Together
Getting a good night’s sleep, and making sure you hit the right amount, isn’t the easiest thing to do, especially if you’ve been doing it wrong for quite some time. Working to begin creating good habits, however, can go a long way toward making sure you reach the recommended sleep amounts for your age group and your lifestyle.
It’s important to remember how vital sleep is. It isn’t something you can try to avoid, as much as I would love to. I often talk about how wonderful it would be to not sleep, but I’ve resigned myself to the fact it’s something we desperately need if we want to function properly from day to day. Creating good habits and finding the perfect sleeping situation for yourself are the first steps on the road to a happier, healthier, well-rested you.