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How much sleep do you need?

woman sleeping peacefully on white sheets - how much sleep do you need

Are you getting enough sleep to feel and function at your best? We reveal how to get your ideal dose of Zzzs

Getting enough sleep is vital for your physical, mental and emotional health. The NHS recommends at least seven hours’ sleep per night for adults, but different people need different amounts at different stages in their lives. So how much sleep do you need?

Our Expert Reviews Sleep Survey suggests that we need – or at least want – more slumber than we’re getting. Most respondents (77%) said they would sleep more if they could. Nearly half (45%) said they get less than seven hours, and one in 100 admitted to getting by on less than three hours per night.

It seems that we’re suffering a widespread sleep shortage brought on by work pressure, life stress and smartphones. While it’s true that different amounts of sleep suit different people, the majority of adults could do with improving the quality and quantity of their sleep.

We’re here to help. In this article, we’ll explore how much sleep you need at different stages of your life, and discover why too little sleep can do so much harm. Then we’ll offer tips for getting better shut-eye.

How much sleep do we need at different ages?

More than a century ago, factory tycoon Henry Ford advocated splitting the day into three chunks of eight hours for work, home and sleep. The eight-hour sleep rule caught on, and many of us aim to get exactly that much shut-eye each night.

The eight-hour rule is occasionally debunked as too simplistic by scientists who argue that sleep isn’t a one-size-fits-all prescription. However, it is broadly agreed on by health experts, including the NHS – albeit with a few tweaks to account for differences such as age.

Most adults can function well on seven hours a night, and may get by on less as they grow older. Children and teenagers, on the other hand, need much more sleep than adults do. Here are the recommendations from the NHS, using figures from UK body The Sleep Charity:

Age (years)Recommended sleep (hours/day)

What else affects how much sleep I need?

The two other big factors are your genetics and the quality of your sleep. If your sleep quality is poor, as it usually is when you have a cold and can’t breathe very easily, your sleep will be shallow and you won’t have enough deep sleep and REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. This means you may struggle to feel restored, even if you’ve had more than eight or more hours of sleep.

Our tips below about improving the amount of sleep you get, will also help you improve the quality of your sleep, so you get the amount of deep sleep you need.

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Why is sleep important?

Sleep is much more productive than being mere downtime for your eyelids. During the different stages of sleep, your brain and body carry out processes that replenish you and boost your resistance to disease.

As you sleep, your body produces proteins that fight infection and boost your immune system. Your muscles and cardiovascular system get a restorative rest and your brain embeds memories and processes newly-learned information.

The benefits are emotional as well as cognitive, with researchers finding a positive relationship between sleep quality and mental health.

The benefits of restorative sleep for our brains and bodies are borne out by our sleep survey. One of our key findings was that people who tend to sleep well also perform well in the workplace, with respondents in more senior roles proving to be happier with the amount of sleep they get. 100% of chairpersons and 77% of CEOs said they get enough sleep, compared with only 38% of people in non-managerial positions.

Why do children need more sleep?

Babies, children and teenagers are still growing and sleep plays a vital role in healthy growth. This is especially true of the deepest stages of sleep, during which an estimated 75% of human growth hormone is released according to studies by the Children’s Society.

Learning is processed by the brain while we’re asleep, so if a child isn’t sleeping enough on a regular basis, their educational development will suffer. A lack of sleep can also make kids feel drowsy and easily distracted at school.

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Sleep deprivation

The occasional bad night won’t do you much long term harm, but you probably won’t function well the next day. Your mood and judgement will suffer, as will your motor skills and attention span. You won’t be back to normal until you’ve had at least one full night’s sleep.

These occasional bad nights are known as acute sleep deprivation. Acute sleep deprivation can also last for several nights, for example during an illness, a period of work stress or even while you’re on holiday.

Where problems really start is when you suffer from chronic sleep deprivation, also known as chronic sleep debt. This regular pattern of poor sleep can do real damage to your mental and physical health, not to mention your work and relationships.

woman with head on her desk in a pink background - how much sleep do you need

Are you short of sleep? Signs of sleep deprivation

Yawning and itchy eyes are obvious signs of tiredness, but they don’t necessarily mean you’re sleep deprived. Symptoms of sleep deprivation, in the short and long term, include:

  • Puffy eyes or dark circles
  • Irritability and moodiness
  • Forgetfulness
  • Increased appetite
  • Clumsiness and slow reaction times
  • Reduced sex drive
  • Lack of motivation
  • Vulnerability to coughs and colds

Effects of sleep deprivation

Even one night of poor sleep can impact your reaction times, concentration and judgement. More troubling still, it can distort your senses. No wonder tiredness is such a hazard on the roads.

Sleep deprivation creates long-term dangers, too. People who frequently get fewer than six hours a night have been found to be at significantly higher risk of stroke and heart disease. This may be because sleep deprivation can trigger the “fight or flight” response that raises blood pressure and heart rate.

Obesity and diabetes are also more likely. This isn’t just because tiredness gives us the munchies, but also because lack of sleep can increase insulin resistance and disrupt your body’s ability to regulate blood sugar.

When your sleep is compromised, so is your mental health. A bad night’s sleep can make it more difficult to control your emotions and communicate with others, this can lead to conflict in relationships and at work. Your memory and communication skills suffer and you feel increasingly isolated and hostile.

Is sleep deprivation the same as insomnia?

They overlap, but they’re not the same. Insomnia means you regularly have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. The NHS estimates that up to one in three UK adults suffers from insomnia, and it’s a key cause of sleep deprivation.

Sleep deprivation has many other causes, however. These include shift work, having young children and a habit of staying up late.

Chronic sleep deprivation often leads to insomnia, so it becomes a vicious circle. If your body is regularly pushed to stay awake longer than it wants to, its natural sleep cues will be overridden. Eventually you’ll struggle to fall asleep even when you want to.

Why do older people suffer more sleep deprivation?

According to our sleep survey: “Older people are more likely to feel sleep-deprived. When asked if they’re getting enough sleep, 53% of respondents aged 18-24 said yes, compared with only 38% of over-55s.”

There are physical reasons for this. As we get older, our bodies naturally produce less of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin. Our circadian rhythms – which regulate bodily functions such as our sleep cycle – also work less efficiently as the years go by. This means that elderly people spend less time in the deepest stages of sleep, so they’re woken up more easily by interruptions like noise and street lights.

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Tips for getting more sleep

Lying awake at night, worrying “I should be asleep”, doesn’t exactly help you nod off. If you ever get into that mindset, you’re better off getting up, reading for a bit and then heading back to bed. You’re then more likely to fall asleep.

Here are a few more strategies for getting your full dose of dozing.

1. Create a good sleeping environment

Light and noise are enemies of good sleep. Use blackout curtains to banish unwanted light, keep screens out of the bedroom and use sleep earplugs or even sleep headphones to override distracting sounds. Find out more in our article on the ideal sleep environment.

woman sleeping with blackout curtains - how much sleep do you need

2. Establish regular sleep patterns

This may be the most powerful tip of all. Going to bed and waking up at roughly the same time seven days a week helps your brain and body fall into a routine. Massive weekend lie-ins and all-nighters effectively result in jet lag on Monday morning.

3. Find the best mattress for your sleeping position

Comfort is key when trying to fall asleep. Your body is at its most comfortable – and least likely to develop back pain – when you lie with your spine aligned. The best mattresses for side sleepers have enough softness to let your curves sink in slightly, while firm mattresses may be a better fit for back sleepers.

4. Look for a mattress with motion isolation

If you share your bed with a restless partner, a mattress with motion isolation helps you sleep in peace by absorbing any tossing and turning. The best hybrid mattresses excel at motion isolation.

higrid hybrid mattress being pressed by hand - how much sleep do you need

5. Avoid screen time before bed

As much as we love a great smartphone here at Expert Reviews, even we admit they’re not the best sleep companions. Sleep experts recommend switching off an hour before bedtime and switching to reading a book or relaxing in the bath.

6. Don’t get drunk

Booze may knock you out but alcohol makes your sleep more shallow, so the end result is sleep deprivation. It’s also wise to avoid refined sugar and hard-to-digest foods in the evening. Good quality carbs such as porridge can help with sleep, though.

7. Set a sleepy temperature

Your brain and body go into Goldilocks mode when it comes to sleep, refusing to settle if it’s too hot or too cold. Anything over 20ºC can disrupt your sleep, so look for a cooling mattress and summer bedding that lets your body breathe. When it’s freezing outside, an electric blanket can help you to snooze in cosy comfort at a reasonable temperature.

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