How Much Sleep Do We Actually Need?

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There’s plenty of bluster on the internet about how much sleep we should all be having.

“8 hours exactly!” scream some sources.

“I actually only need 4,” says a high-functioning CEO, smugly.


The truth is, there’s no ‘one size fits all’ solution to how much sleep we individually need. Most sleep scientists advise us to aim for between 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night, but that’s a pretty wide margin to experiment within. People who are at their most effective after 9 hours of sleep, say, are likely to feel much groggier and slow after a night of just 7 hours, regardless of whether it’s in the recommended period.

How much we need to sleep is determined by immovable factors like genetics. While the amount of sleep you require will likely change dramatically through your lifespan, it’s largely out of your control: there’s no way to condition yourself to need less sleep.

how much sleep do we actually need

How much sleep do we really need?

Sleep By The Ages

The National Sleep Foundation published new guidelines last year on recommended sleep times per age category.

Here are the results:

  • 0-3 months: 14-17 hours per day
  • 4-11 months: 12-15 hours
  • 1-2 years: 11-14 hours
  • 3-5 years: 10-13 hours
  • 6-13 years: 9-11 hours
  • 14-17 years: 8-10 hours
  • 18-25 years:  7-9 hours
  • 26-64 years: 7-9 hours
  • 65+: 7-8 hours

Are you getting the recommended amount of sleep for your age?

Working Out Your Sleep Needs

There’s obviously plenty of room for error within those suggested margins, so there’s plenty of scope for experimentation to determine how much sleep you need as an individual, rather than as someone of a certain age.

A good way to determine your personal sleep needs is to simply sleep. That is, go to bed without setting an alarm and seeing how long you sleep until waking. You’ll need to try and reduce any external stimuli for this experiment in order to get the most accurate results — that means no one waking you up, as little noise as possible and no sleeping pills.

You should then be able to determine an approximation of how many hours of sleep per night you need to rejuvenate, and should then work that time into your daily routine.

If you’re not getting enough sleep

symptoms of sleep deprivation

Another way to assess if you need more sleep than you’re currently getting is to analyse whether you’re suffering from symptoms of sleep deprivation. In the short term, sleep deprivation can manifest itself as:

  • Feeling groggy upon waking
  • Lethargy throughout the day
  • Drowsiness during moments when your attention is not otherwise engaged: meetings, driving, watching TV, for instance
  • Excessive sleeping at the weekends (or days when you don’t need to set an alarm)

In the long term, sleep deprivation can lead to conditions like:

  • Lethargy and depression
  • An impaired immune system
  • Weight gain
  • Heart disease and diabetes
  • Short-term memory loss
  • Reduction in creativity
  • Irritability and anxiety
  • Impaired motor skills

The Bottom Line

A lack of sleep is often worn as a badge of honor, highlighting someone’s busyness and dedication. This is patently misguided pride: a lack of sleep should instead be recognized as a mark of someone not able to properly look after themselves.

There’s no negotiating with sleep. It’s not an occasional luxury to indulge in: it’s a nightly necessity to be ticked off, in order to function at your best.

Just one bad night of sleep can lead to a host of short term problems including drowsiness and a drop in problem solving abilities. Over time, a lack of sleep can add up to much more problematic long-term conditions affecting both your mind and body.

If you think you may not be getting enough sleep every night, take a few days to experiment with what you need. Assuming you’re an adult, experiment with sleep times within that 7-9 hour range and see what works best for you — i.e. what period of sleep you need to function at your best the next day.

You might surprise yourself at how much improved you are in every aspect of your life with the correct amount of sleep.


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