It probably won’t come as a shock to anyone to learn that sleep is important. We’ve all felt the negative effects of not getting enough sleep; a restless night can derail your productivity for the whole day. Most people, especially students, are quick to sacrifice a good night’s sleep, especially when they have a project or exam coming up. While almost everyone will acknowledge that sleep is important, it seems that most people don’t actually realize how crucial having a healthy sleep schedule can be. Research has shown as many as two-thirds of high school students don’t get enough sleep.
Sleep is Fundamental to Good Health
Sleep is more than just a time when our minds and bodies are resting; while we sleep, our bodies are hard at work, doing things that they can’t do while we are awake.
One thing that your body does while you rest is rebuild and repair muscles that you’ve worn down or damaged during the day. Another sleep function is cleaning away harmful plaques and waste products that are produced in the brain during regular functioning. Without proper sleep, muscles never have a chance to fully heal, and a number of harmful chemicals begin to build up in the brain as well as throughout the rest of the body.
On the mental side of things, your mind uses inactive periods to process and file away important emotions and experiences we are exposed to during the day. When we don’t rest our minds enough, memory can suffer, along with our ability to deal with the stimuli we encounter throughout the day. In fact, studies have shown that being sleep-deprived for just one night can increase emotional response to negative feelings by as much as 60%.
While much of this may sound familiar, a lesser known but equally important role that sleep plays in our lives has to do with maintaining our circadian rhythm, commonly known as our “internal clock.”
Naturally, our bodies are set to run on a repetitive 24-hour schedule, which regulates when we feel awake or sleepy and when we can achieve optimum functioning. Metabolism, immune function, and inflammation cycles are also based on this schedule. Not sleeping enough, sleeping at odd times throughout the day, and exposure to bright light at night can all throw off this rhythm, disrupting the many processes which it controls.
Too Much Sleep Can Be Just as Harmful
While the fact that not enough sleep can be harmful may not come as a shock to anyone, it may come as a real surprise to learn that too much sleep is linked to many of the same health risks as not sleeping enough, including heart disease, metabolic problems, and cognitive issues such as memory loss. Talking about how harmful a lack of sleep can be is important, but the danger of oversleeping can be ignored. As with all good things, too much can be just as bad as not enough.
Hypersomnia is the clinical term for both excessive sleeping and excessive sleepiness throughout the day. It has several symptoms, including sleeping for significantly more than the norm, difficulty waking up in the morning, trouble starting the day, constant grogginess, and trouble concentrating.
Of course, this does not refer to occasionally compensating for a particularly exhausting or sleepless night. For someone with healthy sleep patterns, however, this should not be a common occurrence.
How Much Sleep is Healthy?
Exactly how much sleep is the right amount depends, of course, on each individual person. That said, the National Sleep Foundation makes recommendations based on age that are generally a good starting baseline. Based on a recently completed study that took place over 2 years, the list has been updated, with researchers breaking people into groups based on how much sleep they were expected to need.
The basic recommendations for each age group, according to the most recent update, are Newborns (0 to 3 months): 14-17 hours, Infants (4 to 11 months): 12-15 hours, Toddlers (1 to 2 years): 11-14 hours, Preschoolers (3 to 5): 10-13 hours, School-age children (6 to 13): 9-11 hours, Teenagers (14 to 17): 8-10 hours, Younger adults (18 to 25): 7-9 hours, Adults (26 to 64): 7-9 hours, Older adults (65 and older): 7-8 hours.
Using this as a baseline, we can look for other factors that affect each person. There are a number of different things that have the potential to change how much sleep you need per night.
One factor that may play a bigger role than many people expect in how many hours of sleep you need is genetics. Our circadian rhythm and our internal sleep drive, the two primary biological sleep systems, can both be affected by genes. Certain genetic mutations can affect how long people need to sleep, what times of day they feel tired, and how they respond to sleep deprivation.
Since genetics are beyond our control, the best way to learn about what we need is simply to observe. By noting how you feel after different amounts of sleep, you can often get a sense of when you’ve had enough rest.
Another factor that’s much easier to pinpoint is the quality of the sleep we get. People who get poor quality sleep often feel tired after sleeping the same number of hours that would generally be enough. Conversely, people who get good quality sleep may be able to manage better with fewer hours per night.
Your activity levels are also a major contributing factor to how much rest you will need. Sleep provides energy for the body and mind, as well as time for the body to recover from exertion. In general, people who are more active require more sleep.
Similarly, people dealing with frequent health issues often need additional rest. This applies for both short-term illnesses like a cold or the flu and long-term or chronic conditions.
Additionally, stress or change and upheaval can temporarily increase people’s need for sleep. People who suffer from stress and anxiety may require extra sleep, but this applies to positive factors as well. Any situation which demands more energy will require more sleep to cope with the extra workload.
Taking all of this into account, most adults regularly need somewhere in the 7-9 hour per night range. Some people will be better off with closer 6.5 hours, but the only true measure is how they feel. If someone is sleeping 8 or 9 hours consistently and still feels tired, chances are it’s due to oversleeping rather than a lack of rest.
What’s even more interesting to note is how studies often show that on days when people hit the snooze button more than usual, they tend to feel more lethargic and unmotivated. It appears that any significant deviation from our normal sleep patterns can upset the body’s rhythm and lead to more tiredness. Sticking to a consistent schedule, even on weekends and vacations, seems to be the best way to avoid feeling fatigued and unrested.
Make Sleep a Priority
There are a number of things we can do to ensure we’re sleeping well besides just sticking to a schedule. Engaging in relaxing bedtime rituals, like meditation or breathing exercises, are known to be extremely helpful. Also, being mindful of the amount of light, sound, and temperature that you find comfortable can be helpful. Other tactics include exercise, avoiding excessive caffeine, and avoiding using electronics like your phone in bed.
People who think they may be suffering from a sleep disorder can speak to their primary care physician about it, and possibly undergo a sleep study to determine the problem and find a solution. Using the National Sleep Foundation Sleep Diary to track sleep habits over a one- or two-week period may also be very helpful in identifying rest issues.
Most importantly, make sleep a priority. Don’t make sleep the thing you do when you finish whatever you are doing; incorporate sleep into your schedule just like any other important activity.
To read more about the importance of a consistent sleep schedule, check out these websites: