Experts recommend adults get between seven and nine hours of sleep to avoid sleep deprivation. But the truth is that recommendation isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. It is a generalization. Every person is an individual and has different needs. Some people genetically need more sleep, and some people need less.
Are you getting the recommended amount? Are you getting as much sleep as you need?
The key is understanding your personal sleep need, which is the amount of sleep necessary to feel awake, focused, and alert throughout the day.
So let’s discuss what the sleep recommendation means and how it relates to your sleep need.
Recommended Sleep Amounts Throughout Your Life
In the article, Reasons Why You Should Care About How Much Sleep You Get, we talked about how sleep requirements change as you age. We also mentioned the National Institute of Health recommends adults get 7-9 hours of sleep.
The following table shows how those amounts drastically reduce from birth onward.
Understanding These Recommendations
Many adults likely interpret that chart as saying seven hours of sleep is good, and upwards of nine is fantastic. But the truth is, the sleep boards’ recommended amount typically falls considerably short of a person’s needs, resulting in a lack of sleep.
So let’s dive into the nitty gritty of statistics for a minute and talk about sleep data.
When plotted on the following graph, the data for the recommended sleep amount is a bell-shaped curve. The average sleep need for the population over eighteen is approximately 8 hours and 10 minutes per night, which is the peak of the curve.
More than two-thirds of the population falls within the purple zone which is also known as one standard deviation of the average. Simply put, 68.2% of the population needs 8 hours and 10 minutes of sleep nightly, give or take 44 minutes in either direction. Hence where the recommended 7-9 hours comes from.
But that recommendation doesn’t account for over 30% of people outside this range. A not-so-insignificant percentage of adults (15.8%, to be exact) need more than 8 hours and 54 minutes. This means about 1 in 6 people need at least 9 hours of sleep to function well.
Misconceptions About the Sleep You’re Getting
When it comes to looking at your sleep needs and if you’re getting enough, there’s a high likelihood you aren’t correctly assessing the amount of sleep you are getting. There are a couple of common pitfalls many people succumb to when it comes to self-assessing their slumber.
First, we typically underestimate our sleep needs. At the same time, we overestimate our actual sleep time. While you might be in bed from 10 pm to 6 am to hit an 8-hour sleep goal, it’s likely you aren’t sleeping that full eight hours.
Secondly, we often overlook, or downplay, common symptoms of sleep deprivation. You think you feel okay when experiencing a deficit's physical and mental effects.
Determining Your Sleep Requirement
With the pitfalls regarding sleep assessments in mind, relying on your calculations and how you feel isn’t the best method for determining your sleep requirement.
Sleep practitioners recommend two different ways to determine how much sleep you need. When evaluating your sleep needs with either technique, think about the following.
- Do I feel rested when I wake up?
- Do I feel drowsy during the day?
- Do I rely on coffee, soda, or other caffeinated drinks to keep me going during the day?
- Has my partner noticed restlessness during the night? Am I tossing and turning?
Keep a Sleep Diary
A sleep diary is just what it sounds like. Every morning record how long you slept and how you feel upon waking. Even more helpful is if you have a smartwatch that can track your sleep at night. After recording, you can look at your patterns and determine if you need more rest.
If you're in a situation where you're feeling awful throughout the day and not able to function then consider adding or removing an hour, then tweaking it by 15 minutes as the weeks progress.
Dr. Neil Stanley
Keep in mind that this may be unreliable when you first start tracking. It’s challenging to decide on your actual sleep need from the extra sleep your body needs to pay down the sleep debt you’ve possibly acquired.
Take a Sleep Vacation
The second method works well if you have a period where you don’t need to set the alarm for work or personal commitments. Pick a consistent bedtime for two weeks and turn your alarm off, allowing your body to wake up when it wants to.
For the first few days or even a week, you will probably sleep longer than your needed amount as your body works off the sleep debt you’ve built up. Keep going to bed at the same time, and you’ll soon see a pattern emerge. This pattern is the amount of sleep your body needs.
Does Your Sleep Need Change?
Your sleep need is written in your genetic code from early adulthood. That’s why there is little change in the amount of sleep needed between the time you’re 18 and 64, compared to the significant changes you see between infanthood and adulthood.
Over time, sleep deprivation will not cause your body to adjust and function on less sleep. If anything, a prolonged sleep deficit poses risks to your physical, mental, and emotional health.
Can You Need More Sleep Than Your Genetic Need?
Under certain circumstances, your body may want more sleep than your predetermined biological need.
The most obvious time, of course, is when you’re experiencing sleep deprivation and your body desperately wants to catch up. Your body is programmed to make up for the lack of sleep, which is seen by increased grogginess when you wake up and drowsiness during the day—both of which are mechanisms to help lull you back to sleep.
Another time you need more sleep is when you’re sick. Your body and immune system work hard to fight the virus, and you often experience a fever. The fever, coupled with your immune system running in full defense mode, intensifies sleepiness to get you to rest.
The extra sleep recharges depleted energy stores and allows the body to focus on fighting the pathogen instead of completing daily tasks.
Making Your Sleep a Priority
Life is full of commitments and stressors that keep most of us from getting enough rest, and it can feel daunting to make changes that allow you more sleep. However, prioritizing sleep and ensuring you’re getting enough is one of the best things you can do for your health. Being well-rested and functioning at 100% will help you get through your busy, stressful days easier.