Think to yourself for a minute, what do you know about sleep? When I ask people that very same question, the most common answer I get is: “you need at least 8 hours of sleep a night.” But have you ever stopped to think why? It is common knowledge that sleep is extremely important for body, mind, and cellular recovery and repair; but does that necessarily mean 8 hours is required for everyone?

For me, I typically get 4-5 hours of uninterrupted sleep a night; 6 hours if I am lucky and the stars and moon are in perfect alignment. My father and husband are the same way. My mom, on the other hand, can sleep the entire day away without a problem. So that made me stop to think to myself – why do some typically get less sleep than others? But before we dive into that further, let’s briefly cover the 4 stages of sleep.

Stage 1: This is the lightest stage of non-Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep where your body begins to relax and your brain waves begin to slow down. Muscle spasms often take place during this stage. This is the best stage to be woken up because you aren’t quite in a deep sleep yet. On average it can take up to 5-10 minutes to enter this stage of sleep.

Stage 2: This is the first stage of actual sleep. During this stage, your heart rate slows and your body temperature drops. Your body is essentially preparing itself for deep sleep.

Stage 3: This is the deep sleep stage. Unlike Stage 1, if someone wakes you during this stage you will likely feel disoriented for a few minutes. Stage 3 is also where sleepwalking, sleep talking and night terrors occur. Keep in mind, it is dangerous and risky to wake someone up when they are sleepwalking or experiencing night terrors. It is during this stage where you enter the slowest sleeping brainwave activity and the body begins to repair and regrow tissues, builds bone and strengthens the immune system.

Stage 4: REM sleep, also often referred to as the dreaming stage. According to the National Institute of Health, “REM sleep happens after 90 minutes of falling asleep and your voluntary muscles become paralyzed to keep you from harming yourself if you try to act out your dreams.” The first REM period can last up to 10 minutes and each REM period after gets increasingly longer with the final one lasting upwards of an hour or more. Your heartrate and breathing gets quicker and you may experience intense dreams since your brain is more active. You may experience grogginess if you are woken up during REM sleep.  

No matter how much sleep you may require, we all, barring any sleeping issues or conditions, experience the same 4 stages of sleep each night. As with nutrition, there is no “one size fits all” approach to sleep. So, let’s finally answer this overarching question: how much sleep do we really require for our bodies to properly repair itself and for optimal function during the day? According to Medical News Today, “the amount of sleep we need each day varies throughout our lives:

  • Newborns need 14-17 hours
  • Infants need 12-15 hours
  • Toddlers need 11-14 hours
  • Preschoolers need 10-13 hours
  • School-aged children need 9-11 hours
  • Teenagers need 8-10 hours
  • Adults need 7-9 hours
  • Older adults need 7-8 hours”

As you can see, the amount of sleep required for overall good health and well-being varies with age and from person to person. Most adults need 7-9 hours of sleep each night to function optimally throughout the day. Not getting enough good sleep can lead to physical, mental and emotional health problems. By good sleep, I mean you are spending enough quality time in REM and non-REM sleep. For instance, if you tend to feel groggy or low on energy, you most likely aren’t getting enough good quality sleep. There is, however, a common misconception that you can train your body to function on fewer than 7 hours of sleep; but scientists think it is more likely an adaption to the effects of lack or reduced sleep. Cynthia LaJambe, a sleep expert at the Pennsylvania Transportation Institute, explains: “some people think they are adapting to being awake more, but are actually performing at a lower level. They don’t realize it because the functional discipline happens so gradually.” It is worth mentioning, however, that there are some people who do seem to function just fine with less than 6 hours of sleep each night. I tend to be one of those people who seems to be able to function off of less than 6 hours of sleep, although sometimes it does catch up to me, I must admit.

Although some people may struggle to get the appropriate amount of sleep to function optimally, others tend to sleep longer than their bodies need or require. Similar to lack of sleep, excess sleep can lead to poor health. For instance, both lack of sleep and excess sleep can result in type 2 diabetes because not having the proper balance of sleep can have a negative effect on the body’s ability to process glucose. Additionally, because sleep helps to regulate metabolic and endocrine functions, sleeping too little or too much can throw these systems and functions off track causing health concerns such as stroke. So, it is extremely important to not only ensure you are sleeping enough, but you aren’t sleeping too much as well. You know that old saying, “I need to catch up on sleep?” Unfortunately, there is no such thing as catching up on sleep. Once that night’s sleep is gone it is a new day and new sleep cycle. If you were of the belief that catching up on sleep is a thing then that is most likely the culprit of getting excess sleep.

What is the takeaway? We should all aim for at least 7-9 hours a sleep each night. Although this sounds simple in theory, getting the proper amount of sleep can be challenging due to our inherently busy lives. Coming up with an evening routine may help you get enough good quality sleep. The best advice to help with this effort is to reduce screen time about an hour before bed, avoid late night meals and snacks, and reduce alcohol intake.

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