How much sleep do you actually need? We asked experts what's the perfect amount (and how to get it)

Is the eight hour rule a myth? Find out how much sleep you actually need to feel rested and refreshed

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It’s no secret that sleep is incredibly important and for so many of us who struggle to sleep it can often feel that no amount of sleep is ever enough. Of course, there is a recommended amount of sleep that's needed in order to function. 

Eight hours is what usually pops up, but is this a myth? It can be tricky to know if  you need eight hours every night, or if you can get away with less. 

A good night's sleep is so important for our overall health, both mental and physical, and if you are regularly getting too little sleep, it can have a very serious impact. Sometimes, even the best mattresses just isn't aren't to help improve your sleep hygiene.

We thought we'd get it straight from the experts, so we can ensure we are doing all we can to get in these recommended hours of sleep.

How much sleep do you need?

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Research by the National Sleep Foundation indicates that the vast majority of adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep every night. During this time you'll cycle through various sleep stages – awake, light sleep, deep sleep, and REM sleep – which perform a series of vital functions, such as recuperation, development, bodily growth, enhancing memory and learning, and adjusting mood.

However, according to Horacio de la Iglesia, a biology professor at the University of Washington, everyone is slightly different when it comes to sleep. 'Sleep needs vary from person to person, and they also change developmentally,' he explains. 'Infants may need 16+ hours, children more than 10 depending on the age, teenagers between nine and 10, and adults about eight hours.'

A very small minority of people have what is known as short sleeper syndrome, which enables them to function properly, and experience no negative consequences, even if they sleep for around five hours every night.  However, this syndrome is incredibly rare, with less than 1% of the population thought to have it.  

Therefore, the eight hour rule is a good average to aim for. But it will depend on other factors such as age, how active you are, and whether the sleep you are actually getting is quality sleep. Eight hours of bad sleep is much less useful that seven hours of great sleep. 

A headshot of Professor Ignacio de la Iglesia
Horacio de la Iglesia

Horacio de la Iglesia earned his PhD in Neuroscience and Behavior at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, studying the neuroanatomical interactions between the master circadian clock of mammals and the brain centers that control reproduction. He then continued his research on the neural control of circadian rhythms as a Post-doctoral Fellow and as an Instructor in the laboratory of William Schwartz at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He was also an Instructor at Harvard University where he taught a course on Stem Cells. Dr. de la Iglesia joined the University of Washington Department of Biology in 2003.

Why is getting enough sleep important?

A good night's sleep not only gives our bodies and brains a chance to rest and recuperate, but it also helps to growth and recovery, aids memory consolidation and new learning, and gives us the opportunity to dream. Sleep also gives the brain the chance to clean itself and wash out toxins that build up during the waking hours.

These benefits can only be fully realized when you get enough quality sleep. Sleeping less than the recommended amount can be detrimental to both mental and physical health. 

'Some lost sleep can be recovered, but not all,' points out Professor de la Iglesia. 'Part of the problem is that when you lose your normally timed sleep, the sleep you try to recover it with will never be the same quality, meaning the same distribution of REM and non-REM sleep. Also, some benefits of proper sleep, such as its memory benefits, cannot be recovered once you miss it at the right time.'

Plus, if you often experience sleepless nights or get less sleep than they require, you are liable to become anti-social and less altruistic. In short, you get impatient and grumpy, and while it may not always seem like a huge deal, it can really have an impact on your work and social life.

Horacio confirms that 'every single physiological function is impaired by acute and chronic sleep deprivation. Long-term, this leads to mental and physical negative health outcomes and a reduction of lifespan.'

How much deep sleep and REM sleep do you need?

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You can lie in bed drifting in and out of sleep all night, but not wake up feeling rested. Why is that? Because if you don't reach the REM stage of sleep your body isn't going to be able to do lots of the things it does when you sleep – growth, development, repair, building energy to get you through the next day. 

'Deep sleep is very important for physical growth and recovery, and for memory consolidation and new learning,' says Simon Smith, a professor at the Institute for Social Science Research (ISSR). 'REM sleep, meanwhile, is the most important for integrating emotional experiences and regulating mood.'

The first bout of deep sleep tends to be reached about an hour after falling asleep. This will generally last anywhere between 45 and 90 minutes. As the night progresses, deep sleep stages become shorter. In healthy adults, between 13% and 23% of a night’s sleep will be deep sleep.

REM sleep, meanwhile, tends to start around 90 minutes after falling asleep. Research suggests that babies experience REM sleep for around 80% of the time when they’re asleep, while in healthy adults it's closer to 20%. This means that, during an average night, an adult will experience between 84 and 96 minutes of REM sleep. 

A headshot of Professor Simon Smith
Simon Smith

Professor Smith leads the Sleep and Health Group within the Institute for Social Science Research (ISSR). He is a psychologist working on the role of sleep and circadian rhythms in a healthy, safe, and productive life. His current work focuses on sleep in the early years, but he has experience and interest in the wellbeing of others groups, including older adults, people living with dementia, brain injury and neurological disease, young adults and adolescents, shift-workers and athletes.

What are the signs you need more sleep?

So how can you tell if you aren't getting enough sleep for the lifestyle you are living? 

'There are many different reasons that can impair one’s ability to fall asleep,' says Professor de la Iglesia. 'Aging is one common cause of poor sleep. Additionally, there is insomnia, which can have multiple causes, from chronic pain to stress and anxiety.'

Fortunately, when it comes to figuring out if you are getting enough sleep, de la Iglesia says there is a simple test. 'If you sleep longer during non-working days than working days, you are chronically sleep deprived. If you are getting the amount you need, you typically would not need to catch up on the weekend. This is an easy assessment you can do to determine how much sleep you need. Most of us in post-industrial communities sleep less than we should.'

How to ensure you get enough sleep

Ensuring you get enough sleep each night starts with improving your sleep hygiene. Nail down a bedtime routine, make your bedroom a relaxing environment, and ensure you are giving yourself the best chance at a good night's sleep with the best mattress, pillow, and sheets, like these highly-rated sateen sheets at QVC. Here are some really simple tips that can help you maximize your sleep.

  • Stick to a schedule: If at all possible, try to go to sleep at the same time every night, and attempt to get up at the same time every morning. Your circadian rhythms will, in time, allow you to wake naturally at around the same time every day if you can remain consistent.
  • Sleep in the right environment: It’s much easier to have an uninterrupted, quality period of sleep if your bedroom is set up for optimal comfort. By making sure that your bedroom is dark, quiet, and at a consistent temperature that suits you, you’ll be much more likely to sleep well.
  • Avoid food, alcohol and caffeine before bed: Staying clear of stimulants (caffeine), depressants (alcohol), and food before bed can play a large role in determining the quality of sleep.
  • Read in bed: Reading before bed can enhance an individual’s sleep quality and is thought to lower cortisol levels, thereby reducing stress levels.
Joseph Phelan

Joe is a writer and journalist based in London. He is interested in anything related to sustainability and the environment, and has written articles about everything from the growth of extreme sports in Greenland, to the prospect of greening Dubai's desert.