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Sleep Health

Do You Really Need Eight Hours of Sleep a Night? A Sleep Scientist Weighs In

It may be about quality, not quantity.

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This month marked one of the most dreaded times of the year: the end of daylight saving time. As always, we “fell back” this November and changed our clocks so that the sun began to set at 5 p.m. Thankfully, this practice may end next year, and we’ll get to keep our brighter afternoons year round. As it now stands, the main benefit to falling back is gaining an hour of wintertime sleep — but do we even need it? It’s a popular belief that a good night’s rest can be accounted for in eight hours; yet Tara Youngblood, sleep scientist and CEO of sleepme, calls the expectation of eight hours of sleep a night somewhat unrealistic. 

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Sleeping a consecutive eight hours every night may sound like a pipe dream. Whether you’re working late at the office, tending to a newborn crying through the night, or feeding a pet early in the morning, it’s often impossible to achieve the “right” amount of Zzz’s. But according to Youngblood, the quality of our sleep matters more than how many hours we’re snoozing. So, if you sleep poorly for eight hours and your husband sleeps soundly for six, he may be getting better rest and reaping more health rewards. 

Youngblood has shared five simple tips to help optimize the quality of your sleep and wake up feeling like a million bucks, no matter how many hours you’re able to snatch in Dreamland. Check out her tricks and find out more about the importance of sleep below. 

Why is sleep so important, anyway?

Sleep is basically magic. According to Aric Prather, psychologist at the University of California, treater of insomnia, and author of new book The Sleep Prescription, a good night’s sleep can make us more empathetic, creative, and competent — it even makes us better partners and parents. Quality sleep also improves our overall health, and not getting enough of it can accelerate health risks like heart disease and obesity, Youngblood warns. “Getting the right amount of quality sleep is vital for our mental, physical, and emotional health — and it’s much more important than tracking the amount of hours you’re asleep for,” she says. 

Sleep is traditionally divided into four categories: awake (your transition from wakefulness to sleep), light (your early stages of sleep), deep (you are disoriented if awoken), and REM (your body is immobilized). But you don’t hit each stage only once: The entire sleep cycle actually repeats itself several times a night, with every successive REM stage lasting longer. While you’ve probably heard about REM or the “rapid eye movement” phrase of sleeping — this is the stage responsible for vivid dreams — Youngblood puts a heavy emphasis on the importance of the third, “deep sleep” stage. 

“The first half of our night is our deep sleep window,” she explains. “During this period, everything drops: our heart rate, breathing pattern, blood pressure, muscle activity, and body temperature. Slow delta [brain] waves indicate that you’ve reached a deeply meditative and dream-free sleep.” The ideal amount of deep sleep per night is two hours, Youngblood claims. This is the highest quality of rest, regardless of whether you end up reaching five or eight hours total by the end of your night — getting two hours of deep sleep should allow you to wake up refreshed the next day. 

The Sleep Foundation confirms that “we spend the most time in deep sleep during the first half of the night. During the early sleep cycles, [deep sleep] stages commonly last for 20-40 minutes. As you continue sleeping, these stages get shorter, and more time gets spent in REM sleep instead.” In keeping with Youngblood’s recommendation, this means that if you cut your sleep time short by a few hours, it’s all good; your deep sleep stages will shorten the longer you stay asleep anyway, and it’s really the deep sleep that you need. 

In deep sleep, your body repairs itself and your brain consolidates memories and things you have learned throughout the day. Also, during both stage 3 and REM, your cells repair and rebuild themselves, hormones are secreted to promote bone and muscle growth, and your body strengthens its immunity to protect against illness or infection. Like I said, it’s practically magic. 

Where did the ‘8 hours’ thing come from?

The National Sleep Foundation’s guidelines advise that healthy adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep per night. For adults, getting less than seven hours of sleep a night on a regular basis has been associated with poor health — including weight gain, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, and depression.

Still, everyone is different, and many people claim to need less sleep than that. A lot of top executives and leaders — like former presidents — famously require less shut eye than the recommended eight hours. Martha Stewart snoozes for less than four hours a night, according to CNN Money, and late night talk show host Jay Leno sleeps five. Former president Barack Obama got six hours a night while in office, according to Michael Lewis’ profile in Vanity Fair; former president Donald Trump did three to four hours a night, according to The Daily News; and former president Bill Clinton was renowned for sleeping five or six during his presidency, according to The New York Times. Could less sleep be a secret to success, or do these people have such demanding jobs they could not prioritize rest? We may never know; the important thing is to do what feels best for your body. 

The Sleep Scientist’s Tips

Unfortunately, older adults tend to have a harder time falling asleep, plus they often sleep more lightly and wake up more frequently. So, if you find yourself needing a little extra help to improve your nighttime routine, try the following tips from Tara Youngblood, and you’ll be well on your way to getting the kind of uninterrupted rest that restores the body. 

  1. Calm your body: “Meditation, mindfulness, journaling, and keeping your eyes away from the blue light emitted by electronic devices are all great starting points to improving sleep quality,” Youngblood says. “When we put our mind in a calmer state, we can better let go of our day and embrace our body’s need to recover and relax. A recent study also found that adults who participated in mindfulness fell asleep more quickly and even stayed asleep longer at night.”
  2. Drop the temperature of your environment: “Once you’re in a relaxed state, there must be a physical change that happens to signal to your body that it’s the appropriate and safe time for sleep,” Youngblood explains. And that change can be temperature! “There are several studies that share the science of the benefits of sleeping cool. Lowering the temperature of your bedroom or opting for a sleep system like Dock Pro Sleep System, Cube, or OOLER from sleepme are good bets when it comes to adhering your body’s temperature to the natural drop it will experience as it enters a deep sleep state.” 
  3. Keep a set schedule: “Maintaining a consistent sleep schedule can help you get more quality sleep,” Youngblood points out. “It’s beneficial to the body to have a recurring time for winding down — it can even lower the risk of heart disease and contribute to healthier body recomposition. Attempting to get up at the same time every day — even on weekends and during vacations — can help sustain the timing of your circadian rhythm and get you to fall asleep faster and wake up more easily.”
  4. Avoid meals before bedtime: “Try to avoid eating a large meal before bedtime,” Youngblood recommends. “If you’re hungry at night, eat a light, healthy snack. This will allow your body to digest any recent food you ate within a comfortable timeframe, while at the same time not disrupting your sleep.”
  5. Exercise daily: “Moderate to vigorous daily exercise can help improve your sleep quality,” Youngblood concludes. “Research has shown that exercise can alleviate sleep-related issues — including reducing the amount of time it takes to fall asleep. An hour of daily exercise is recommended; try yoga, strength training, running, or simply walking.”

Of course, in an ideal world, we’d all be sleeping a solid eight hours — or more! — per night. Sometimes I want to stay in bed all day. But we each have responsibilities we cannot ignore and goals we must pursue. So make the sleep you are able to get count.

This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.

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