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How Much Sleep Do You Need?

20 October 2015

Allison read Do We Really Need to Sleep 7 Hours a Night and the Recommended Amount of Sleep for A Healthy Adult: A Joint Consensus Statement of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and Sleep Research Society. Both of these articles will likely leave people wondering exactly how much sleep they need.

Tags: allison read, balance, chris winter, health care, healthcare, sleep

If you follow my blog posts, attend a class I teach, or talk to me for more than a little while, then you probably know that I think sleep is very important. In fact, I prioritize sleep and feeling rested above everything else. If you want to be a good leader, communicate well, manage conflict, and do everything else we suggest at Allison Partners, then I believe the single most important thing you can do is to make being rested a priority. It’s just too hard to be your best self when you’re tired.

However, I never, ever talk about the exact number of hours you need to sleep. I always talk about what it means to be rested. For a few of us rested is possible on six or less hours of sleep. For most of us, the number is more like six to eight hours. Your job is to figure out how many hours you need in order to feel rested most days. That’s the only number I ever care about when I’m trying to help someone figure out their rest requirement.

Rested to me means that you can wake up when you want to and it’s not a torturous process. You can drink some coffee in the morning, but you don’t need caffeine after 10:00am. You have the energy you need to get through your day and have energy for your family or other activities in the evenings. You feel engaged throughout your day. Periodically you feel frustrated by people or situations, but mostly you think, “Yes, I’ve got this. I can do what’s needed. It’s okay.” You might sleep a bit more on the weekends, but you don’t have to “catch up” on sleep all weekend. This is my definition of rested. If you feel mostly rested like this and can do that on five hours of sleep, then yay you. I’m happy for you.

But most of us don’t feel rested like this on just five hours or less of sleep. We need more. Exactly how much more is a very personal thing. But if you go to bed at the same time every night and eliminate electronics and TV a few hours before bed time and “put yourself to sleep” as you would a seven-year old child, then pretty soon you will find out how much sleep you need in order to feel rested.

In the last few years, the medical community and people in many other fields have been on a mission to convince people that sleep is just as important as nutrition and exercise. There have been multiple studies (including this groundbreaking research from Dr. Czeisler at Harvard) linking regular sleep of less than six hours a night to obesity, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, depression, and significantly increased risk of stroke. While most people may struggle to make sleep a priority, more and more have started to be convinced that getting more than six hours a night might actually be important.

Then, last week a medical study was reported in the New York Times and PBS, Do We Really Need to Sleep 7 Hours a Night. U.C.L.A. scientist Jerome Siegel did a study of the hunter-gatherer communities of the Hadza and San tribes in Africa, and the Tsimané people in South America showing that they only need six and a half hours of sleep. This study was done in an effort to prove that the recent push to help people get more sleep was perhaps unnecessary. When you watch the PBS excerpt included with this article, you’ll see that at the end of the interview the researcher questions the assertion that 10-12 hours of sleep is necessary. 10-12 hours? Who on earth is pushing for that? I’d be surprised if almost anyone I know is getting a quality six to seven hours of sleep so his research feels like a disservice to me.

As an advocate of being rested (notice I didn’t say an advocate of a certain number of hours of sleep), I was genuinely frustrated by this study because I don’t think it takes into account the quality of sleep of the communities studied. My guess is that the whole family goes to sleep at a similar time. I imagine that they don’t have a lot of technology and artificial light in the last few hours before bed. I would guess that they get up at the same time every day even if they had a less than restful sleep because they need to do things essential to their survival like find food. If they have a bad night’s sleep and get up when needed regardless, then I’m guessing they are more tired the next night and sleep better that night.

Under these circumstances, I imagine that six and a half hours of quality rest is regularly achieved. Unfortunately, many of my clients aren't living this way. I think they are watching TV in bed and checking email and social media just before they turn out the lights. I know they are going to bed at different times depending on how much they “have” to do related to work or their lives after work. Most importantly, I know they are tired. So very tired. They reach for caffeine, fat, sugar, and carbs at 3:00 or 4:00pm to help them keep going.

I know all of this, but I was still a little nervous about doubting a scientist's research. That’s when I decided to reach out to my go-to sleep science expert, Dr. Chris Winter. I called him last night and found out that he had already responded to this study on a Fox news interview. You can watch it here. He shared with me that almost every expert in the sleep sciences recently agreed that seven hours of sleep is probably close to the right number for ages 18 to 60. You can read these findings in the Recommended Amount of Sleep for A Healthy Adult: A Joint Consensus Statement of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and Sleep Research Society.

Dr. Winter joined me in my frustration that Siegel's study was about communities that have healthy sleep hygiene habits that do not mirror that of most post-industrialized nations. Therefore, the findings may not be helpful to the people Dr. Winter and I are helping every day.

So… do you need more than six and a half hours of sleep? Probably not if your six and half hours start at about the same time every night and you practice good sleep hygiene habits. However, if you’re like most people Dr. Winter and I work with, then you likely need more than six and a half hours in bed each night to allow yourself time to wind down and get the rest you need. The exact number of hours of sleep each of us needs is very personal. You should only sleep as much as you need to feel genuinely rested throughout your day. If you struggle to get to sleep or stay asleep, then you need to practice better sleep hygiene habits. If practicing better sleep hygiene doesn’t do the trick, then you need to see Dr. Chris Winter or someone like him. Don't let Siegel and his study keep you from figuring out how much sleep you need to feel rested and effective each day.


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