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How much sleep do you really need? These strategies will help you figure it out

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8 February 2021

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How much sleep do you really need? If you wake up tired, chances are you’re not getting enough sleep. These strategies may help you determine your sleep needs. So grab a pillow, curl up and read on.

The magic number

The best person to determine how much sleep you need is you. If you feel tired, you probably need more sleep. But science does offer some more specific guidance. People who sleep seven hours a night are healthier and live longer. Sleeping less than seven hours is associated with a range of health problems including obesity, heart disease, depression and impaired immune function. But sleep needs vary greatly by individual. Age, genetics, lifestyle and environment all play a role.

The Ministry of Health quotes the US-based National Sleep Foundation’s recently updated recommendations based on age: adults up to the age of 65 should aim for seven to nine hours of sleep, while those over 65 need seven to eight hours.

Ask yourself: are you sleepy?

This simple question is the best way to determine if you’re getting adequate sleep. If you often feel tired at work, long for a nap or fall asleep on your morning or evening commute, your body is telling you it’s not getting enough sleep. If you’re getting seven or eight hours of sleep a night but you’re still feeling tired and sleep-deprived, you may be suffering from interrupted sleep or a sleep disorder and may need to talk to a doctor and undergo a sleep study.

Illustration of a woman sleeping on bed dreaming of sheep

Keep a sleep diary

Even if you think you’re getting enough sleep, you may be surprised once you see your sleep patterns in black and white. Some of the new activity trackers, like those available on an Apple Watch, will monitor your sleep patterns for you, but you can also easily do it yourself. For the next week, keep a sleep diary:

1. Write down the time you go to bed and the hour you wake up.

2. Determine the total number of hours you sleep. Note whether you took naps or woke in the middle of the night.

3. Note how you felt in the morning. Refreshed and ready to conquer the world? Or groggy and fatigued?

Not only will a sleep diary give you important insights into your sleep habits, but it will also be useful to your doctor if you think you are suffering from a sleep disorder. You can find plenty of sleep diary worksheets online to get you started.

Take a holiday from your alarm clock

Want to really identify your individual sleep needs? Try this “sleep vacation” experiment. To do this, you will need two weeks when you don’t have somewhere to be at a specific time in the morning. If you have a flexible job, you can do this any time, or you may have to wait until you’re on holiday. The experiment requires a little discipline:

1. Pick the same bedtime every night.

2. Turn off your alarm.

3. Record the time you wake up.

Chances are, you will sleep longer during the first few days because you are catching up on lost sleep, so the early data won’t be useful. But over the course of a few weeks, if you stick to the scheduled bedtime and allow yourself to wake up naturally, you’ll begin to see a pattern emerge of how many hours of sleep your body needs each night.

Once you determine your natural sleep needs, think about the time you need to wake up to get to work or school on time, and pick a bedtime that allows you enough sleep to wake up naturally.

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