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How Much Sleep Do I Really Need?

Modern life seems to be getting busier for most of us and it seems the quest for ultimate efficiency is running away with itself. It's no surprise why sleep-time would be the obvious area to skimp on because sleeping does not seem to be a very productive activity for go-getters.

Notable persons in history have proclaimed their disdain for sleep

Thomas Edison described sleep

as a criminal waste

while Margaret Thatcher said

sleep is for wimps

How-Much SleepWho are we to argue!? Thankfully for us the need for sleep and its benefits has been the focus of many studies leading to a more objective view of the subject.

In my quest for understanding more about my own need for sleep I came across some interesting ideas and considerations that I will share with you here.

Do our brains shut down during sleep?

Studying the sleeping brain was apparently not the easiest of tasks but recent scientific developments have created tools which allow scientists to learn more about what goes on during our sleeping hours. Apparently during the hours of our sleep we consolidate our daily experiences which form our memories as well as seeking solutions for complex problems in our lives.

Clearly our brains do not shut down while we sleep.

Placebo Sleep - can we con ourselves to perform better?

I'm sure most of us believe we perform our best when feeling bright-eyed and bushy-tailed after a solid night sleep. Contrary to this a night of disrupted and limited sleep usually brings about mental fogginess and diminished physical performance the following day. Right? Apparently we can cheat this reality.

According to a series of studies outlined in an article titled 'Placebo Sleep Affects Cognitive Functioning' in the JOURNAL OF EXPERIMENTAL PSYCHOLOGY if we are convinced that we have had a good night's sleep, regardless of whether we did or not, simply having this positive belief will positively influence our mental performance.

This is all good and well but in reality most of us may find it a challenge to convince ourselves otherwise when suffering the effects of sleep deprivation. What we need is a more objective measure to help prove that we are indeed sleeping better than we think we are.

For example, insomniacs are likely to overestimate how long it takes for them to fall asleep contributing to a self-perpetuating cycle of sleep-related anxiety. One study using a sleep-monitoring gadget called an actigraph provided the required objective measure proving the discrepancy between their own false beliefs and reality resulting in significantly less sleep-related anxiety thereafter.

Do we really need to spend a third of our lives sleeping?

If you were a giraffe you would survive quite happily on less than two hours of sleep a day - an enticing prospect I'm sure for corporate leaders. But, thankfully for the rest of us, we're human and two hours of sleep simply won't cut it.

The standard recommendation is eight hours of sleep a night (a third of our day) but there are always exceptions to any rule. Are you a six hour or a ten hour sleeper? How do you know if you are sleeping enough? The simplest advice and possibly the most relevant is simply to listen to your body. If you wake up feeling well rested and alert the chances are you have slept sufficiently. If you wake up groggy and yawn yourself through to your first (of many) caffeine hits - maybe you didn't sleep as much as you needed to.

Figuring out what is our optimal individual sleeping pattern can be difficult due to the many stimulants of artificial light, caffeine and stress which face us each day.

If we exercise more we may need more sleep to aid sufficient recovery. Andy Murray put his success at Wimbledon down to 12 hours of sleep a night.

Your holiday sleep cycle

It is believed that the best way to observe your natural sleep cycle would be when you are on holiday. After the first few days when you are better rested, ideally not being influenced by excessive stimulants such as alcohol, you may discover you go to bed and wake at quite different times than during your normal working week. This is thought to be closer to the natural timing of your body clock.

This natural timing doesn't always fit in with work and family schedules but having this insight may provide the motivation to make small and manageable changes as necessary.

Your internal body clock

You may know we each have an internal body clock that programs our wake and sleep cycles. In fact, every living cell is said to be governed in some way by a 24-hour (actually 24.5 hour) cycle, a rhythm of biological activity known as our circadian rhythm.

Have you heard some people claiming to be a morning person, known as larks, or an evening person, known as 'night owls'? There is some truth to this concept and has something to do with an attribute of ours called the chronotype which reflects at what time of day certain physical functions are active such as hormones, body temperature, hunger, etc.

The reality is however that most people are neither extreme and fall somewhere in the middle.
That said, something I found interesting and relates to my partner is that 'evening people' are believed to have lower nocturnal body temperatures. I on the other hand have always felt best first thing in the morning and enjoy a rather high body temperature. This may not be conclusive by it is a worthy association.

There is even an online questionnaire you can complete to find out which type you are. Tip - to get to the questions click the small button at the very bottom of the page.

Resetting your body clock for better sleep

Apparently many people's circadian clocks are being delayed by up to two hours as a result of reduced exposure to natural sunlight who are instead living in artificially lit environments.

There is a simple way to reset our body clocks - go camping!

Eight volunteers proved that a few days in the natural wilderness living under tent canopy and by camp fire alone as a source of night time light will do the trick. The lack of torches or electronic light resulted in earlier bedtimes and earlier rising - more in sync with the natural daily cycle. Both morning and evening types benefited but the body clocks of the night owls shifted to a greater extent.

Exercise for better sleep

Countless reports have stated that those of us who exercise regularly also sleep better.

There are some differing views about when the best time of day to exercise is and this may again come down to individual preferences, chronotype, and time availability.

Despite some claiming that a good workout just before bed would do wonders for your sleep I tend to lean towards the camp that believes otherwise. Exercise, especially intense workouts, are a stressor on the body and raises your cortisol levels - not ideal if you want to turn in soon afterwards.


Night owls have the toughest time conforming to regular work schedules but may benefit from a camping trip now and then (no torches!)

Regular exercise will generally improve sleep quality but insomniacs won't see immediate benefits. Sleep disorder sufferers tend to only realise the benefits of exercise on their sleep patterns over the long term - 4 months and more.

If your workouts are more intense-level activity then you are going to need more sleep.

In our modern, busy and very full lives the quality and quantity of our sleep warrants more of our focus and attention than we perhaps give it. After all, what goes on during those 'unproductive' sleep hours has a lot of influence on how productive we are in our waking hours.

Image courtesy of 'holohololand' /


by Simon.