How Much Sleep Do We Really Need?

This is a question that has plagued children, teenagers and unruly students alike for decades – there is an answer and you’ll most likely know it already…

It’s rumoured that Margaret Thatcher spent the majority of her time in office sleeping only 4 hours a night, whereas Einstein was reported to have up to 10 hours a sleep every night. Most people could guess who made better decisions whilst they were on this Earth – but should we really be following in either of these people’s footsteps?

In order to successfully function as decent human beings, it’s imperative that we sleep regularly. But how long should we sleep for? Should it be during the night? Is taking naps OK? And is it healthy to go to sleep listening to Seinfeld repeats every night?

The history of sleep is a rich and textured one – we’ve not always slept in the same ways. However, over decades of research, an informal consensus has been reached – albeit one with some minor caveats. Unfortunately, the Technological Revolution has brought with it a myriad of distractions whose sole purpose, it seems, is to stop us from sleeping. 

“So how much sleep is enough, and is there such a thing as too much sleep?”

Most scientists recommend anywhere between 6-8 hours sleep for the average adult and around 9-11 for adolescents. Little nippers obviously need a great deal more, as they spend the nights growing – as well as resting.

In the wake of an ‘always-on’ globalised community, a worrying trend has now developed amongst adults and adolescents – suggesting that technology is keeping large swathes of the world’s populations awake at night – with thousands choosing to while away the night-time hours bingeing TV on popular streaming sites or idly scrolling through the News Feeds of their favourite Social Networks. Is this something that we should be worrying about? Do we need to be sleeping through the night and can we just get by on napping?

Although we are all of us made a little differently from one another, a few general rules can be applied to human beings’ relationship with sleep. Regardless of whether we are ‘night owls’ (preferring to stay up later and rise later) or ‘larks’ (rising much earlier and getting to bed comparatively earlier), we are all programmed to function on the same ‘circadian’ rhythm – this is the fancy name for the internal clock inside us that determines when we get tired.

“So as long as I get 8 hours sleep at some point, it doesn’t matter when I go to sleep?”

Nope. Not quite. You see, there are certain benefits to being awake during the day and asleep during the night. The more hours you spend in the lovely day light, the more serotonin your body is likely to produce. Serotonin is key for mental well being. Those who do not get the chance to produce enough serotonin run the risk of developing Seasonal Affective Disorder – a condition which can cause low mood or even depression.

Similarly, when the sun goes down, the body starts to produce another hormone that acts in almost opposite way to serotonin. Melotonin doesn’t make you sad, but it does make you feel sleepy – preparing your body for the imminent sleep that is soon to come. Work against this hormone and you may well stay up longer, but you also risk sending your ‘circadian rhythm’ into disarray.

“So I should just…sleep for 8 hours, seven days a week and try and get up in the morning?”

Yes! That’s pretty much it. The answer to getting a good night sleep is simple and, most probably, one that you already know.

If you were looking on this page for an excuse to stay in bed a bit longer, or stay up that extra hour later – we’re sorry to disappoint you – but you need to look elsewhere!