I have a retired 64 year-old patient, I’ll call him Bob, who tells me that he never sleeps more than 5-6 hours a night and that he’s always up with the sun, full of energy for his active retiree day and never gets that mid-afternoon sleepy slump. He’s doing well, has no major health concerns, and this amount of sleep seems to be working well for him.
Another patient I have, I’ll call her Ellen, 46 years-old, working full-time every day as a busy legal secretary, tells me she’s a zombie unless she has at least 9 hours of sleep a day. What’s the difference between the amount of sleep Bob and Ellen need, and how do you know how much sleep you need? I’d like to tell you about several important factors to consider.
What Determines How Much Sleep You Need?
Seems all the news is buzzing today about sleep and how we should all get more because our heart health, and even maintaining a normal weight, depends on it. Two recent sleep studies have suggested that the baseline magic number for everyone is to get 7-9 hours of sleep per night. While that’s a good recommendation, some people just simply don’t need that much sleep. Consider these things when figuring your sleep requirements:
•General health: Are you in good health or do you have some chronic problems like diabetes, high blood pressure, fibromyalgia, depression, get chronic colds, or some other ailment? If so, you likely require more sleep as chronically decreased sleep can lower your immunity to all types of illness. In turn, chronic illnesses create stress and require more sleep/repair time to re-charge your immune system. Fibromyalgia is thought possibly to be due to a chronic lack of sleep, so sleeping more could actually alleviate, or greatly relieve, that condition.
•Stress levels: Like my patient Ellen, do you have a hectic job, or are you caring for a sick person/elderly parents, have financial difficulties, family problems? If so, you may find yourself desiring, and requiring more sleep to counteract the physical/mental exhaustion from the stress and its effects on your immune system.
•Fitness level: Are you in shape, exercising regularly at least 4 days a week for 40 minutes at a time, or are you more sedentary? Studies show that people who are physically active require less sleep because they burn off stress, lower blood pressure, and blood sugar, and muscles relax more during exercise.
•Your age: While it’s true that some older people do well on less sleep, some actually need more sleep, based on symptoms they may have, irritability, depression, inability to focus, forgetfulness, even balance problems. This group of people simply may not be able to stay asleep long enough and could benefit from sleep aids.
•Sleep quality/duration: Restless sleep can be just as bad as too little sleep. You develop a sleep debt if you only sleep 2 actual hours a few nights a week on a chronic basis though you may be in bed for 8 hours. This can lead to dangerous consequences caused by sleep deprivation (see the list below). A polysomnogram, or sleep study, can show what quality/duration of actual sleep you are getting at night. This can be arranged through your doctor. Sleep debt, can fortunately, be “paid” off by making up sleep hours on following nights or by taking naps the next day. Too long sleep, over 9 hours, has lately been associated in research studies with possible health risks and early mortality. However, these studies need further research as they are not as conclusive of actual cause/effect as too little sleep studies have been.
Symptoms of Sleep Deprivation
The best way to gauge how much sleep you need is simple – how do you feel and function at what length of sleep each night? Remember, everyone’s sleep needs are different. Here are some common symptoms of sleep deprivation to watch for to better calculate your sleep hours:
•Falling asleep while driving, or at work, or other places during the day.
•Lack of concentration, irritability, depression, inability to comprehend or remember written/spoken material.
•Appetite increases/weight gain that occurs from hormone suppression.
•Worsening/developing health conditions.
Things That Can Help You Sleep Better
If you’re like my patient, Bob, who has no trouble with sleep, consider yourself one of the lucky few as approximately 20% of Americans get less than 6 hours of sleep every night. Here are some things you can do to help get better sleep:
•Control caffeine and alcohol intake. Don’t drink either, 2 hours before bedtime.
•Get regular exercise during the day instead of near bedtime.
•Block out noise, light from your bedroom while sleeping. No TV or computers in bed.
•Keep pets from waking you up.
•Keep consistent sleep schedules every day and on weekends.
•Drink hot cocoa, hot cinnamon milk, red rooibos tea before bedtime; or take 2 calcium, magnesium supplements, all of which will help you relax and fall asleep.
Sleep is essential to staying naturally healthy. Too little is known to cause serious consequences and too much may cause serious health problems as well. Keeping a sleep diary for a few weeks, noting how you feel with your sleep, can help you get your magic sleep number just right for you!
Mark Rosenberg, M.D.