Rewire Logo
A nonprofit journalism
website produced by:
Twin Cities PBS Logo

How Much Sleep Do You Really Need?

The No. 1 sleep expert to trust is your own body.

by Gabe Zaldivar
January 3, 2020 | Health

I know what you want to hear. And I’ll gladly tell you that it’s for your own good: Go to bed.

Getting enough sleep is one of the most important things you can do for your health. But, sadly, many of us are falling egregiously short of the quantity and quality of sleep we need to operate above a zombie level. Parenthood, career or school are sucking a vital human need.

But how much does it matter?

About one-third of Americans aren’t getting enough sleep, according to a 2016 study by the Centers for Disease Control. The report suggested each of us get about seven hours of shut eye a night.

You might be used to hearing that you should get more in the neighborhood of eight. These numbers will fluctuate depending on who you talk to. The fact remains — how much sleep you should be getting is sort of complicated.

How much do we need?

“There’s a lot built into that question,” said neurologist and sleep medicine specialist W. Chris Winter.

It would be nice if there really was a hard and fast rule. Unfortunately, humans are complex beings and we’re all different when it comes to sleep needs. We all know someone who can get just a few hours of sleep and seem like an actual human being the next day.

illustration of a pillow with closed eyes, sleeping. Rewire PBS Living How much sleep
The bad news is that no two people need the exact same amount of sleep. The good news is listening to your body can help you figure out what you need.

“There are people who can do fairly well on the surface with a very small amount of sleep. Two, three hours a night can easily be sustained over a period of time.”

Essentially, how much you need boils down to your own personal makeup. A recent study discovered some folks have a genetic predisposition to thriving on less sleep.

“Some recent studies have reported that adults sleeping between five and six hours had a longer life expectancy than others who slept more or less than that," said Lina Velikova, a sleep expert with Disturb Me Not.

Velikova points to a National Center for Biotechnology Information study published in 2010. In that study, short sleep was equal or less than five hours, and long sleep was more than eight.

How to know if you need more

Unfortunately, a universal sleep schedule doesn’t exist. That’s the frustrating news. The great news is that your body is the most important sleep expert to trust.

“The goal is to wake up naturally without an alarm,” said Ramiz Fargo of the Loma Linda University Sleep Disorder Center.

“If a person depends heavily on the alarm and feels very sleepy or on weekends sleeps significantly longer than normal without an alarm this is an indication of being sleep deprived.”

Feeling like you are shackled to the bed is another good indicator.

“If you drag yourself out of bed and feel hungover, headachy, achy and tired, you are not getting enough sleep,” said Carolyn Dean, sleep expert and author of "365 Ways to Boost Your Brain Power: Tips, Exercise, Advice."

Basically, if you can perform at a high level throughout the day, and don't feel the need for even a quick nap to rejuvenate yourself, you're getting enough sleep.

Can you ever catch up on sleep?

“Short-term sleep deprivation can be subjectively mended by one good night sleep of around 10 hours,” Velikova said.

She pointed to research that showed “one hour of lost sleep takes four days to recover from." But this can vary from person to person.

“It depends, but most people say one good sleep and they can be back to normal,” Dean said.

The important thing is not to stress about sleep loss. Instead of worrying about hitting a nightly mark, it might be more beneficial to think of catching up in more achievable terms.

Winter suggested tracking your sleep debt on a weekly, rather than nightly, basis.

“You can make up a short-term sleep debt, so, instead of thinking about it as you need to get seven hours of sleep a night, it’s probably more realistic to think about it as 49 hours a week.”

What happens when we don't sleep?

Anyone who's had to go into work after a sleepless night knows how it can affect your mental capacity.

“There is a link between the lack of sleep and cognitive functions, impaired judgment and memory,” Velikova said. “A study has revealed that, even three days later, the cognitive functions are not completely restored.”

Be warned that early symptoms can quickly turn into a somnambulant slippery slope.

“In less extreme cases, after a few nights of poor sleep, you’re tired, tense and testy,” Dean said. “You drink too much coffee to try to function and by the end of the day you can’t wait to crash and get some shut-eye.

"If this goes on for too many days, you’ll be reaching for over-the-counter sleep meds or sleeping pills from your doctor and no one will blame you.”

But it’s not just the ol’ noggin that’s suffering. There’s a reason the experts plead with Americans to get more sleep — a lack of it can wreak havoc on your entire body.

“There’s tremendous cardiovascular risk, heart attack and stroke,” Winter said. The sleep deprived are, “perhaps five or 15 times more likely to have cardiac events.”

“Rates of dementia are much higher in people who have poor sleep quality or are sleep-deprived,” he said.

Other related health problems include digestive issues and diabetes.

[ICYMI: Reasons Why You're Not Sleeping, and What to Do About It]

Prioritize your sleep

Sleep is elusive for many of us. It’s an unfortunate fact of life for parents, students and people with sleep disorders. There are some things, thankfully, to help rectify a lack of it.

“It's hard to get a good night's sleep without enough of the mineral magnesium, because magnesium facilitates sleep regulating melatonin production,” Dean said.

More generally, prioritize your sleep. We often take it for granted, and it’s nearly as important as eating. You can’t control your genes, but you can control, to an extent, how much sleep you get on a weekly basis.

“There are three things, and you can rank them however you like,” Winter said. “Nutrition is probably one. (Then) exercise and sleep. To me those are the three most important and controllable variables in terms of our health.”

Do yourself a favor and ditch that final episode or that last 15 minutes of phone time before bed. Your health depends on it.

Gabe Zaldivar
Gabe Zaldivar is a Los Angeles-based writer who has covered all manner of sports for Bleacher Report and, as well as all manner of travel interests for
Are you here? So are we!
Rewire LogoFor a better life and a brighter future
A nonprofit journalism website produced byTPT Logo
©2020 Twin Cities Public Television.Privacy PolicyTerms of Use