Getting a good night’s sleep is essential to your well-being. Because we all require different amounts of sleep depending on a variety of factors, science has provided us with some guidelines to better understand and improve our sleep health.
However, in a world with deadlines, caffeine, and Netflix it’s easy to lose track of how much shuteye you’re getting on a daily basis. Some people overdo it, some don’t do it enough, and the consequences are always less than pleasant. Here’s what you need to know.
Why is Sleep Important?
No matter your level of resilience, there’s only so much your body can withstand with little sleep. When you rest, your brain is hard at work running a series of mechanisms that allow for optimal biological and physiological performance.
Sleep helps turn emotions and experiences into memories, rebuild muscles, clear brain waste, control inflammation, and regulate both our metabolism and circadian rhythm. If you provide your body with enough restorative time it will reward you with peak performance the following day, allowing you to learn, create, and execute all your daily activities efficiently.
However, ensuring prime sleep health is not as simple as putting in the extra hours on the pillow. In fact, it’s the quality of sleep that matters the most. Ever woken up after ten hours feeling sluggish and like you could do with a little more? That’s because your brain didn’t spend enough time in two important phases of the sleep cycle: deep sleep, the period in which your body restores itself, and REM sleep, which benefits memory and mood.
Although you can’t control the time you spend in every phase, you can increase your chances of getting more benefits by avoiding being disrupted overnight and sleeping an extra 30-60 minutes in the morning when REM sleep phases last longer.
The Negative Effects of Sleep Deprivation
A hectic lifestyle, stress, illness, and a high intake of substances like caffeine and alcohol can easily affect your sleeping pattern. While you might only feel tired the next day, the consequences of sleep debt can go beyond our perception. Aside from fatigue and drowsiness, common cognitive issues involve poor decision-making skills, lack of concentration, decreased creativity, increased feelings of distress, weakened immune system and motor skills, and a stronger reaction to negative emotions.
Long-term periods of sleep deprivation have been linked to a variety of cancers, high blood pressure, and chronic illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease. Thus the less sleep you get, the more likely your body is to fail to keep a high level of maintenance of all its functions.
The Negative Effects of Getting Too Much Sleep
Clinically referred to as hypersomnia, sleeping too much can also be detrimental to our health. It’s a medical disease that shows symptoms such as anxiety, fatigue, and memory problems. However, despite it having similar health risks to insomnia, oversleeping is a more complex issue due to its potential of being a symptom as well as a contributing factor to a medical condition.
The most significant correlation is with depression. Although particularly common among teens, excessive sleepiness can represent a sign of depression, with women experiencing it more frequently than men. At the same time, sleep disruption can also negatively affect the severity of depression and its treatment. A study from 2014 found that approximately 27 percent of the adult population with depression in the US had co-occurring insomnia and hypersomnia, a condition presenting a higher risk of suicide and decreased impulse control.
However, hypersomnia is not just about sleeping longer hours every day. In fact, in some cases the main issue is focused on the quality of sleep, leading to daytime sleepiness caused by the body’s attempt to recover from the sleep deficit. The explanation for these cases lies in specific disorders such as narcolepsy, the brain’s inability to control the sleep-wake cycle, sleep apnea, the reoccurring temporary blocking of airways during sleep, and restless leg syndrome, the constant need to move your legs due to uncomfortable feelings. However, medical conditions like epilepsy, neurological disorders, and obesity, as well as drug and alcohol abuse, and certain medications can also lead to oversleeping.
How Much Sleep Should You Get Every Night?
The quantity of shuteye each of us needs depends on many factors, including age, genetic makeup, lifestyle, level of daily activity, and health. Toddlers need more sleep than adults, just like someone experiencing high levels of stress daily needs more than someone leading a stable and healthy lifestyle.
Although there isn’t one specific answer suitable for everyone, the National Sleep Foundation has provided us with recommendations for different age groups:
- Newborns (0-3 months): 14-17 hours
- Infants (4-11 months): 12-15 hours
- Toddlers (1-2 years): 11-14 hours
- Preschoolers (3-5): 10-13 hours
- School children (6-13): 9-11 hours
- Teenagers (14-17): 8-10 hours
- Adults (18-64): 7-9 hours
- Older adults (65+): 7-8 hours
It’s good to keep in mind that these are general guidelines that don’t necessarily apply to everyone. Some people might need more sleep due to certain medical conditions, while others might function well on less sleep as a result of specific genetic mutations. If you listen carefully, your body will tell you how long you should rest for.
How to Improve Your Sleep
The first step to a healthier lifestyle is assessing your sleep needs, followed by ensuring you get a good night’s sleep. It’s an enjoyable activity, it requires minimum effort, and delivers astounding health benefits — how lucky are we?
A good way to analyze your situation is to keep track of your mood and energy levels every day, as well as your diet and exercise regime. Keeping a journal is a good way to store all that information, which you can give to your physician in case you identify any concerning patterns and request a consultation.
In order to improve your chances of getting high-quality sleep, here are a few tips that might do the trick:
- Develop a sleep routine. Set a specific time for you to go to sleep and wake up and stick to it, even on weekends.
- Make sure your bedroom is dark, at a comfortable temperature and level of noise.
- Put away your electronics at least 20 minutes before you intend to sleep.
- Get a comfortable mattress and pillow to avoid sleep interruption and feelings of soreness in the morning.
- Abstain from caffeine and alcohol in the evening.
- Exercise daily, even if it means walking to work instead of taking the bus or taking the stairs instead of the lift.
Sleep must be a priority just like any other activity. The better you do it, the healthier you are. If you find yourself still struggling with constant fatigue and lack of clarity during the day after a couple of weeks of self-evaluation, don’t hesitate to consult your primary care physician.