Looking back, I guess that the advice parents used to dispense when we were young was right all along – a good night’s sleep is central to wellbeing. But it was only after years of being sleep-deprived that I finally understood the value of a good night’s slumber.
For one thing, good rest does more than just give the body time to relax and repair itself – although of course that’s one of the main functions of deep rest. Getting the right amount (and quality) of sleep is essential for mental health.
How much sleep is enough, and how much is too much?
Obviously, the amount of sleep needed differs according to a range of factors, including the following:
Your age: Babies sleep for more time during a 24 hour period than they spend awake. The vast amounts of sleep we need as babies decreases throughout childhood and adolescence, and by the time we arrive at adulthood, around a third of the 24 hour period is needed for sleep.
The amount usually quoted is between 7 and 8 hours, although a lot of people claim they feel better with a little less or a little more either side of these.
Genetics: Some people sleep more than others not because of laziness, but because their sleep requirements are biologically hard-wired.
Lifestyle and health issues: This is where it gets a little complicated – your basal sleep requirement is the amount you need in order to function properly, but when things like a bout of transient insomnia or an early start for to the day (for instance, to catch a business flight), you may accrue a sleep ‘debt’.
So while some nights 7.5 hours may be perfect on others more may be required. Sleep is like life itself – there are no magic numbers or one-fits-all answers!
In determining how much sleep you need, it’s valuable to consider things like these:
Are you always woken by the alarm in the morning? And if so, do you feel alert when it goes off, or do you instinctively feel that another half hour (or more) of sleep would have you feeling better? If you wake naturally and comfortably prior to the alarm going off, it could be a good sign that you’ve been sleeping the right length of time.
Do you sleep significantly longer on days off? Many of us enjoy a little longer in bed on weekends and holidays, but if you’re rising much later, it could be that you’re in fact righting a sleep debt that’s built up during the preceding weeks or days.
How I became a sleep enthusiast
I wouldn’t be able to guess the amount of times in the past when I woke up to an alarm clock that sounded, to my sleepy mind, like an unwelcome invasion.
As I mention above, waking up in the twenty minutes or so prior to the alarm clock can be a good sign that the right amount of rest has been gained. But it took me a while to get to this point, and there were some challenges along the way.
The first thing I did was – without knowing it, really – to challenge my perception of sleep. I guess I’d been taken in by phrases about how sleep is somehow a ‘waste of time’ and also the stories of various successful people who seemed to sleep only around 4 or 5 hours a night.
But by realising that after 8 hours of sleep a night I felt happier and more relaxed, I had a realisation. Sleep is not a waste of time (of course!) but a bleary day after a short night’s sleep can be a waste of time.
Especially when natural dips in alertness (such as the 2pm slump) were made much, much worse by not having slept enough. I don’t know if getting plenty of rest has had an effect on my weight – but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that less sleep can cause overeating.
In my next article, I will go into the barriers to a good night’s sleep as well as the basic rules for optimising sleep. These were things I only ever really thought about in detail after I became a sleep enthusiast. And as to how I became one?
The answer is really very simple – the moment that my days and nights became balanced, I found I relished them both. Now, this didn’t happen overnight (pardon the wordplay there) but let me tell you: if I can get to where I am now in terms of optimising my sleep, then there has to be hope for many who burn the candle at both ends.