How Much Sleep Do We Need?

How much sleep we need depends on our age, gender, and genetics. And while the 8-hour standard is still a good rule-of-thumb, the quality of sleep that we actually get will dictate how we feel the next morning. And because our busy schedules often dictate how much sleep we get…it’s important that those prone hours be as productive as possible.

As we go through life, our bodies get into a 24-hour cycle called the circadian rhythm. And as darkness falls, the brain’s pineal gland naturally secretes a chemical called melatonin, which makes us feel drowsy. Our bodies are usually at their peak temperature just before sleep, which will start to lower as we fall asleep. Erratic schedules, stimulants, stress, drugs, and other factors can alter this sleep schedule and wreak havoc on our system’s natural ability to rejuvenate itself.

Our sleep need varies with our age. Infants will typically need 16 hours of sleep each day; while toddlers (ages 1-3) may need between 10-12 hours of sleep; and by the teenage years, this can decrease to 9-11 hours of sleep a night. As adults, how much sleep we need per night can vary from 6-10 hours, but most experts seem to recommend 7-8 hours per night.

Sleep deprivation is common in our busy society. Sleeping disorders are on the rise and the impacts can be seen in the increased caffeine consumption, increased obesity problems, and the more widespread cases of diabetes and depression. All of these issues can be reduced by healthier sleeping habits. How much sleep we get is also an important safety issue, as a decreased awareness from sleep deprivation is blamed for approximately 100,000 auto accidents and 1,500 fatalities each year. Sleep deprivation was also cited as the cause for the Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Exxon Valdez oil spill catastrophes. Don’t underestimate the importance of a good night’s sleep!

In recent years, scientists and medical researchers have mapped sleep patterns through the use of an Electroencephalogram (EEG). Over numerous studies, tests, and measuring of brain activity, it was determined that there are five (5) distinct stages of sleep. Four of these stages are considered to be non-REM (Rapid Eye Movement), and the fifth stage is the REM portion of sleep. Each stage of sleep has benefits for various body and mind functions and how much sleep we get in these stages will impact how we feel the next day.

Below are the stages of sleep, benefits, characteristics, and approximately how much sleep we get with each one:

  • Stage 1 – Drowsiness: When you first fall asleep, your eyes move softly under your eyelids, muscle activity slows down, and you in a relaxed state although still perceptive to the world around you. This stage can last for 10-15 minutes.
  • Stage 2 – Light Sleep: In stage 2 the eye movements stop, heart rate decreases, and our body temperature goes down.
  • Stage 3 & 4 – Deep Sleep: Deep sleep is best described as those times when you wake up from such a deep slumber that you’re disoriented and groggy. It’s during the deep sleep stage that your body releases a growth hormone for mental and physical cell repairs. People that exercise regularly have exhibited deep sleep stages that are 2-3 longer than those that don’t exercise which had led some experts to state that “exercise is rejuvenating”…sounds good to me ;-)
  • Stage 5 - REM Sleep: REM sleep usually occurs in cycles during the last 5-6 hours of an 8-hour night’s sleep. So how much sleep we get in this stage will depend on how much sleep we get for the night. During REM sleep, eye movements increase, heart rate increases, and the normal body processes also increase. It’s during this stage that dreams occur, and it’s also this stage that we’re most likely to wake up in the morning (feeling refreshed). These REM periods last approximately 20 minutes and can occur between 4 and 6 times per a good night sleep. Unlike the non-REM stages, our major muscle groups don’t move, so we won’t sleepwalk or “jar” ourselves awake during REM sleep.

So what can we do to improve the quality of our sleep?Avoid stimulants like alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine in the hours leading up to bedtime. We should also try to “wind down” in the evening with relaxing activities…not stressful ones. Because how much sleep we get doesn’t always start when our heads hit the pillow…especially if there’s something on your mind that you’re worried about. Experts also recommend that we avoid large meals and strenuous exercise immediately before it’s time to go to bed, as these activities can detract from a good night’s sleep.

Like everything else, too much sleep can also be a bad thing. If you’re an adult, try to get 7-8 hours of sleep each night. You’ll know if you’re getting enough if you wake up refreshed. If you feel drowsy though-out the day, you probably need some more sleep. The U.S. Department of Health & Human services put together a Healthy Sleep Guide (pdf) that has more tips and facts if you want more in-depth information on the topic.

Healthy sleeping habits lead to better moods, a reduced risk of obesity, better memory and learning ability, and a healthier immune system. How much sleep we get and the quality of that sleep needs to be a part of our fitness program and a priority in forming a healthier lifestyle. Fitting sleep into our already packed schedule can be a challenge and often becomes something that we compromise…How much sleep are you getting?

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