The general consensus on how much sleep a person needs is 8 hours. 8 is apparently the magic number, but since it’s hard to find the origins of this claim or any real evidence to support it, perhaps we can only assume that it’s because the average person sleeps for between 7 and 9 hours per night (according to questionnaires).
However, it stands to reason that most people don’t know when they actually fell asleep each night, so this could be regularly overestimated. This pie-in-the-sky ballpark figure doesn’t clarify much, so we thought it was about time we looked into the matter in more detail.
Well, we’ve established that 8 hours may as well be an old wives tale, and if studies are anything to go by, it really is. By way of example, we’ll refer to a sleep study conducted by Jerome Siegel of the University of California in Los Angeles. He confirms that the 8-hour golden rule doesn’t have a lot of basis in reality, after doing a study of tribal cultures without access to electricity. Historically, they had generally managed only six or seven hours of sleep.
There’s a lot of contradictory information out there though. Some US-based analyses have concluded that seven hours of sleep is the ideal number, and that regularly getting less than this may result in chronic diseases, obesity, depression and early death… which is possibly a forecast to put you off getting out of bed at all! Don’t worry if you’re only clocking up around six hours, because the University of California, San Diego conducted a 2010 study contradicting this completely.
According to UCSD paper, the secret to health and longevity is getting ‘just enough’ sleep. For most, this tots up to about 6.5 hours each night, but less may be even better, it seems. Since the study analyzed more than a million people (of various ages, lifestyles and states of health) over six years, we can safely assume they’re onto something.
After comparing the subjects’ sleep patterns to their longevity, the magic number was established to be 5 hours per night - as the minimum. This is reportedly better for you than sleeping for 8. To back this theory further, the Cancer Prevention Study II (CPSII) from the American Cancer Society also claims 5 hours each night is ‘safer’ than 8. You may wish to draw your own conclusions about the definition of safe.
The reality is that there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to sleep. For some people, five hours per night would have them slack-jawed and perpetually loitering at the coffee machine. For others, five hours would be a dream come true. How much sleep you need is likely to depend on a multitude of factors, including:
- How active you are each day
- How old you are
- How demanding your job is
- How much you travel
- How nutritious your food is
- The state of your immune system
- How much stress you’re under
For example, if you’re a professional athlete who travels constantly, you might get pretty tired, but your body is probably healthy enough not to have too much reparation work to do at night. Maybe 5 hours would be too little, but 8 hours way too much. If you survive on junk food, endure stress all day at work, and are a smoker, your sleep patterns will be impacted. You might struggle to get out of bed even after 8 hours.
Although studies and averages can provide you with a guideline, there is a common sense approach that can be applied to the equation too. If you’re going for gold on minimum sleep each day, with maximum productivity and a cheesy grin, the low number obviously suits you well. Conversely, if you’re skulking around your office trying not to bite colleagues’ heads off each day, maybe you need a bit more.
Ultimately your body is the best teacher. It will automatically tell you how much sleep it needs by the way it feels throughout the day. Check in with your body, but don’t let habit (or unsubstantiated folklore) pull the wool over your eyes. Getting the right amount of (quality) sleep is something we should take very seriously.
If you find yourself struggling to sleep at all, perhaps you’re not using up all your energy reserves during the day. This is a likely story for those in sedentary jobs; perhaps you need to eat less - or eat higher quality foods – and you can easily tire yourself out with some regular exercise.