How much sleep do you actually need? This is what experts say

With a busy schedule, sleep is often the first time-consuming thing to cut out or decrease. But, how much sleep do you actually need? Can you neglect your sleep needs and still stay successful and healthy? Between a demanding work schedule, family commitments, and just life in general, finding the time to prioritize sleep can feel like putting together a complicated jigsaw puzzle.

Sara Anderson is the resident sleep expert for Zoma Sleep, a performance-enhancing sleep brand offering scientifically engineered products like mattresses and pillows designed for athletes and individuals with demanding lifestyles. While there is a standard recommended amount of sleep, Anderson explains how sleep needs can vary for different people. 

“According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adults should sleep for 7 or more hours every night. Younger adults should try to sleep between 7 to 9 hours,” Anderson says. “However, while this is enough sleep for the average adult, people with active lifestyles, such as athletes, may need to sleep up to 10 hours a day.”

Why Is sleep important? 

As anyone who has pulled an all-nighter in college, stayed up with a newborn or wrestled with a bout of insomnia can tell you, without sleep, it can be incredibly hard to function throughout the day. Not getting the proper amount of rest can also take a toll on your body from the inside out. 

“Sleep is an essential part of staying in good physical and mental health,” Anderson says. “During sleep, the body undergoes multiple recovery and maintenance processes. Many of your body systems, such as your heart and vascular system, also slow and rest while you sleep.”

A lack of sleep can also negatively impact your productivity by interrupting your ability to focus. This can cause a ripple effect that can hinder success at work and within relationships. A lack of sleep can even make you more susceptible to physical illness. All of these outward signs of a lack of rest begin when your body is unable to reset and recharge on the inside during sleep. 

“For example, the brain completes a lot of tasks while you’re asleep, such as logging memories,” Anderson says. “In addition, the body releases certain hormones during sleep, such as growth hormones that help repair cells and boost muscle mass. Cytokines, hormones that help you fight off infection, are also created while you sleep.”

What counts as sleep? 

When you’re asleep, your body gets a chance to recharge, but what actually counts as sleep? Anderson explains how to calculate an appropriate bedtime to get the sleep you need, as well as whether or not you should add naps to your overall sleep total.

“As we mentioned earlier, adults need to sleep for seven-plus hours. To determine what time you should be asleep by, count back from when you need to wake up,” Anderson says. “We recommend erring on the side of caution and budgeting eight to nine hours of rest instead of trying to coast by on seven hours of sleep.”

So, for example, if you set your alarm to get ready for work at 5 a.m., counting backward to budget for eight hours of sleep time means that you should be asleep by 9 p.m. Yes, this might sound like an early bedtime, but your mental and physical health truly depends on it.

“Remember your bedtime is the time you want to be asleep by, not when you first climb in bed,” Anderson says. “Many sleepers find they need 15 to 20 minutes to fall asleep, so be sure to include that time frame in your calculations.”

Especially when working from home, a quick nap might sound like the ideal way to squeeze in more sleep without having an earlier bedtime. Anderson says that “naps should be counted toward overall sleep time,” but cautions that “this is part of why many sleep experts recommend against napping.” It really depends on the individual, though.

“Too much napping could potentially throw off your sleep schedule,” she explains. “Still, mid-day naps seem to benefit younger people, although excessive napping in older individuals is tied to adverse health conditions.”

For individuals who work certain occupations — healthcare workers for example — a nap may be a necessity to get through a long shift. 

“The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommends taking a brief nap for 15 to 30 minutes during the day,” Anderson says. “Set an alarm to make sure you don’t oversleep. Longer naps are recommended for people working long shifts, such as emergency response workers, who need to grab some deep sleep for better daytime performance.”

How to know if you’re getting enough sleep 

When your sleep schedule is off or your overall schedule changes, it can be hard to know if you’re actually getting the proper amount of sleep. However, there are a few general signs to look for that can signify when a person is not getting adequate rest

According to Anderson, the following are symptoms of sleep deprivation:

  • “Feeling as if you could drift off to sleep during an activity, such as struggling to stay awake while reading, watching TV, or sitting still
  • Finding yourself taking longer to complete tasks or making more mistakes than usual
  • Experiencing changes in mood, such as increased irritability, anxiety, or depression
  • Feeling clumsy, unbalanced, or uncoordinated, potentially to the point of frequent falls or other accidents”

When these symptoms are present, it’s a sign that you need to evaluate your sleep habits and make a change before more significant damage occurs. 

“Sleep deprivation can also cause serious physical problems, such as a weakened immune system and an increased risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, kidney disease, high blood pressure, and obesity,” Anderson says.

Tips for better sleep 

“When it comes to getting a better night’s rest, we suggest coming up with a sleep schedule and maximizing the sleeping potential of your bedroom.” Below, Anderson explains how to do just that. 

1. Keep a consistent sleep schedule: As mentioned above, you’ll want to calculate your sleep and wake-up times to ensure you’re getting the sleep you need. “A sign that you’re getting enough sleep is waking up refreshed and without the aid of an alarm clock,” Anderson says. “And while many people enjoy sleeping in on their days off work, it’s best to try to keep a consistent sleep schedule and wake up at the same time every day. Doing this makes it easier to fall asleep at the same time every night.”

2. Develop a bedtime routine: “It’s important to not just come up with a set bedtime but to work on having a pre-bedtime routine,” Anderson says. “Relaxing and getting ready for bed helps to signal to your brain that it is time to sleep. Taking a warm shower or bath, reading a book, doing some light stretches, or talking with your family are good ways to wind down before bed.”

3. Limit other bedroom activities: While this tip may not work for everyone, if you have the space to allow your bedroom to only be a place where sleep occurs, it can help you get better rest. “As an example, using your bedroom as your home office can make it harder to associate it with sleep when it’s time for bed. As a result, your mind might linger on thoughts of work and other personal matters,” Anderson explains. “On the other hand, if all you do in the bedroom is sleep, your mind may be less preoccupied when it’s time for bed.”

4. Optimize your sleep space: To set yourself up for sleep success, Anderson says keeping your bedroom “cool, dark, and quiet” can “promote deep, uninterrupted sleep.” She recommends blackout curtains for bright spaces, earplugs to block out noises, and a thermostat set to between 60 and 75 degrees. “Cooler temperatures help you sleep without disturbances,” Anderson explains. “You can also prevent overheating by sleeping on a cooling mattress.”

5. Evaluate your mattress: “Lastly, it’s important to make sure you choose the right mattress,” Anderson says. “A good mattress supports the body and relieves pressure so you feel refreshed when you wake up and ready to tackle your day. To make sure you don’t choose the wrong bed, always choose a mattress with a lengthy sleep trial that gives you time to decide if you like it.”