How much sleep you need, and all your bedtime questions answered
Sleep is one of those things that’s necessary for absolutely everybody, while also being pretty hard to understand to understand or find for some.
Insomnia is an ever-present spectre for some, while conditions like sleep paralysis, sleep apnea, severe snoring, or night terrors pervade the lives of others.
Given that sleep can affect everything from your weight, to your concentration, to whether or not you get heart disease or have a stroke, it’s no surprise we’re all looking for ways to sleep longer and better.
The first step in that is understanding the importance of sleep, and what an optimum night’s shut-eye entails. Here are all your main questions answered.
How much sleep do we need?
You may have heard the old saying that eight hours a night is ideal. While that’s good guide timing, there isn’t an exact right amount that suits everyone.
The amount of sleep you need varies with your age and life circumstances.
Sleep expert Neil Stanley says: ‘Individual sleep need is like height – we are all different and it is to a large degree genetically determined. Anywhere between about four and eleven hours can be considered normal but getting just one hour less sleep a night than you require can have measurable effects on your physical and mental health.’
The Sleep Foundation recommend about seven to nine hours a night for an adult or young adult, but this can be affected by anything from how stressful your days are, your health, and the stimulants you eat or drink throughout the day.
As you get older, you also start to need less sleep.
Stanley advises that you work out what’s best for you. If you feel tired every day that means you aren’t getting enough hours.
How the sleep cycle works
It’s not just about the amount of sleep you’re having either, but the amount of quality sleep and sleep cycles.
Sleep researchers generally divide sleep up into five stages.
Stages one and two are ‘light sleep’, stages three and four are ‘deep sleep’, while stage five is REM.
Light sleep occurs when you first nod off. It usually involves lots of movement, and is easy to wake from.
When your body is finally comfortable you will fall into deep sleep. Your brain switches off and your body does a bit of maintenance.
This includes secreting a growth hormone to repair damaged cells, cleaning your blood with your kidneys, and strengthening your immune system.
What is REM sleep and how do you know you’re having it?
REM sleep – also known as deep sleep is probably the most vital and restorative parts of a good forty winks.
Rapid Eye Movement sleep occurs from around 90 minutes after you first fall asleep and is characterised by a few things that make it different from the previous four stages.
Firstly, this tends to be the time that you have dreams, and your heart rate, breathing, and eye movements will begin to look and sound more like they are in your waking state.
Up to around 23% of your sleep time is REM sleep, but it’s fairly difficult to know if you’re having it unless you’re checked by a doctor.
They’d hook you up to a Polysomnography, which would measure your vital signs to work out how much REM sleep you’re getting. This will only tend to happen if there are real concerns about your wellbeing and sleep quality.
Some fitness trackers can also give you rough estimates of your sleep quality, but much of this tech is fairly new so shouldn’t be relied on exclusively.
Why is REM sleep important?
As touched on earlier, this is the point during your sleep cycle where the most goes on in terms of restoration and rejuvenation of your body.
Some of the benefits of REM sleep include:
- cell regeneration
- increasing blood supply to muscles
- promoting growth and repair of tissues and bones
- strengthening the immune system
- helping your memories be processed and stored in your brain
What happens when you experience sleep deprivation?
While it would undoubtedly be easier if we could get everything done night and day, with no need for sleep.
That’s not the case, however, and the effects of sleep deprivation can actually be devastating.
Alongside the fact that you won’t get the benefits of sleep mentioned above, sleep deprivation can cause various things depending on how long you’re awake.
To start off with, you’ll likely feel irritable and tired, with effects like severe drowsiness and inability to focus growing over the course of days. At this point, you’re much more at risk of accidents when driving, working, or even doing simple daily tasks.
Over time, lack of sleep can lead to obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes, as levels of hormones dip or rise and cause changes in your body.
How to get to sleep
This may be the trickiest one of all, as different people find that different methods work for them. The first thing to do, though, is ensure you have the right conditions for sleep.
Sleeping in a dark, quiet room with as few distractions as possible is best. Consider your body temperature, too, as being too hot or cold can hinder sleep.
Then consider your bedroom routine, being careful to avoid blue light from phones and other devices before bed. Some recommend a warm bath an hour or so before bed too.
As well as this, keeping regular bed times and wake up times and avoiding caffeine should help regulate when you get tired.
If none of these things are working, you can try the many sleep apps available online designed to lull you into slumber. From there, if you still can’t drop off, you should see your GP.
Which sleep position is best?
The most common sleep position is the foetal position, with 41% of adults drifting off this way. Strictly there’s no ‘best’ sleeping position, but rather ones that work best for different people.
Sleeping on your back reduces pressure on your muscles and joints, and can also reduce acid reflux. This is considered the ideal position as long as you don’t have sleep apnoea or snoring issues (as your tongue could block your airways and make things worse).
If you do have either of these issues, sleeping on your side with your legs and arms relatively straight is ideal.
Pregnant women are recommended to sleep in the foetal position to increase blood flow and stops your uterus pressing on your liver. Just make sure not to ball yourself too tightly.
For all of you who sleep on your front, you may be sad to know that there aren’t many benefits of this. Still, if you must, it’s advised that you sleep with your forehead against a soft pillow and facing forward, so you have room to breathe but also don’t have to crane your neck.
What is sleep paralysis?
Sleep paralysis is a temporary inability to move or speak that happens when you’re waking up or, less commonly, falling asleep, according to the NHS.
It’s essentially when your body is in REM sleep while still awake, and is often seen in people who have been deprived of sleep, who have irregular sleeping patterns, or who have a condition called narcolepsy.
Although you’re awake, your body is briefly paralysed, after which you can move and speak as normal. Hallucinations during sleep paralysis are also common. This can last from a few seconds to several minutes.
Sleep paralysis doesn’t cause you any harm, but being unable to move can be very frightening. Some people have sleep paralysis once or twice in their life, while others experience it a few times a month or more regularly.
It can affect people of all ages, but it’s more common in teenagers and young adults. Men and women are equally affected.
What is sleep apnoea?
On a base level, this condition involves breathing stopping and starting while you’re asleep.
- making gasping, snorting or choking noises
- repeated waking
- loud snoring
During the day, you may also experience:
- lack of concentration
- mood swings
- a headache when you wake up
If you suspect you have sleep apnoea, the best thing to do is visit your GP. You’ll likely be referred to a sleep clinic, and treatments if you are diagnosed include a CPAP machine to improve breathing, or a gum shield to ensure your mouth is open.
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