How much sleep do I need?

Written by

Sheila Frampton

How much sleep do you need? A good night’s sleep is essential – the following are all sleep benefits of a good nights sleep:

  1. It allows your body to regulate the release of hormones controlling your appetite, metabolism, growth and healing

  2. It boosts brain function including concentration, focus and productivity

  3. It reduces the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and strokes

  4. It helps with weight management

  5. It allows the body to maintain your immune system

  6. It lowers the risk of depression

How much sleep do adults need?

Getting enough sleep is essential for our health – but how do we know we are getting enough sleep?   And how much is enough?  

The answer is that our sleep time changes as we age. Babies need up to 17 hours of sleep each day whilst older adults may be fine with just seven hours. As a general guide, adults under the age of 64 need 7 to 9 hours a night whilst those over the age of 65 need between 7 and 8 hours but, of course, this varies from person to person.

There’s also a difference between male and female sleep rhythms. Men’s body clocks tend to run to a full 24-hour cycle or longer meaning they feel less tired in the evenings. In women, the internal clock is likely to be shorter than the full 24-hour cycle making it likely they will wake earlier making them more likely to suffer from sleep disturbances.

Sleep cycle diagram

So how do I evaluate my own sleep needs?  

If you’re asking yourself ‘how much sleep do I need?’ you’re probably not getting enough. After all, if you’re sleeping well, it’s unlikely that you’ll be thinking about your sleep cycle. It’s only when we have problems sleeping – when we get ‘sleep anxiety’ – that we actually think about our sleep patterns.   

If you’re worried that you’re not getting enough sleep, you could use one of the many sleep trackers on the market – such as the Fitbit or one of the contactless sleep trackers that use a measuring pad that sits under the mattress. If you answer ‘yes’ to most of the following questions, you’re probably suffering from sleep problems – in terms of quantity, quality or both.

  • Do you feel rested after sleeping for seven hours or do you need more sleep?

  • Do you have to set an alarm clock in order to wake up?

  • Are you drowsy during the day?

  • If you sleep with a spouse/partner, have they noticed that you have sleep problems?

  • Do you rely on coffee or other caffeine sources to get you through the day?

  • Are you irritable and moody during the day?

  • Has your appetite increased?

  • Is your skin looking dull?

  • Do you have dark circles under your eyes? 

A woman holding her hand on her face
A yawning grey cat

Are there any conditions that can cause sleep problems?  

If you have insomnia – that is, you regularly have problems sleeping - changing your sleeping habits or your lifestyle may help. You could be suffering from stress, anxiety or depression, your environment may not be helping with sleep – it could be too hot, cold or noisy or your bed may be uncomfortable.   It is possible that you could be suffering a condition linked to sleep problems:

  1. Restless legs syndrome – known as Willis-Ekbom disease is a common condition of the nervous system

  2. Overactive thyroid

  3. Obstructive sleep apnoea/sleep apnea – this is a condition that stops and restarts your breathing when you sleep.  You do need to get help for this because it can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease and strokes.   Loud snoring can be a sign that you have sleep apnea – so do get this checked out

  4. Chronic pain

  5. Insomnia has been linked with sleep paralysis, which is when you cannot move or speak as you are waking or falling asleep. This can be scary but it’s harmless and most people only get it once or twice in a lifetime. 

  6. If you are suffering from insomnia, do seek medical help. Your doctor may be able to prescribe medications or refer you to a therapist for cognitive behavioural therapy to help change the thoughts and behaviours that stop you sleeping. 

“Almost 23% of us only get between 5 and 6 hours of sleep per night. ”

Chemist 4 U Sleep Survey

When should I consult a sleep doctor/sleep clinic?

If you’ve missed sleep for several days and haven’t had enough, you’ll run up a ‘sleep debt’ and eventually your body will demand that you repay the debt. Your concentration and focus may deteriorate, you may be sleepy in the day, irritable and moody and your judgement may be impaired.

Whilst sleep problems often sort themselves out within about a month, longer stretches of poor quality or lack of sleep will have a significant effect on your health so if you or your partner/spouse have been experiencing sleep-related problems, even those caused by chronic snoring, sleep talking or night cramps, a medical professional should be consulted to determine the underlying cause.

How do I improve my sleep quality? 

It’s not just the amount of time you sleep but the quality of your sleep that’s important.  It may be that you are having broken sleep which is having an adverse effect on your quality of life. One way to improve your sleep quality is by improving your sleep hygiene – which includes having a sleep schedule and sticking to it every day, including weekends, practising a relaxing pre-bed routine which will help you fall asleep quickly, choosing a good mattress, quality pillows and bedding and minimising potential disruptions form light and sound.

Our top sleep tips:

  1. Exercise regularly but make sure you do so a few hours before you go to bed

  2. Increase your exposure to sun or bright light during the day – this helps maintain your body’s circadian rhythms which affect the sleep-wake cycle

  3. Try not to take long daytime naps

  4. Try to wake at the same time each day

  5. Try to avoid alcohol or caffeine in the evening

  6. Switch off your electronic devices about half an hour before bedtime – the light from devices can stimulate the brain and make it difficult to fall asleep and avoid looking at a TV, laptop or phone once in bed

  7. Establish a relaxing sleep routine – taking a warm bath or listening to soothing music

  8. Read a book just before bedroom

  9. Make sure the bedroom isn’t too hot or too cold – 18 degrees centigrade is a good temperature

  10. Turn the lights out before bedtime as a signal to your brain that it’s time to sleep

  11. Close your eyes, relax your muscles and focus on steady breathing

A dog in a blanket

What do I do if I can’t get off to sleep?

If you can’t fall asleep, the best thing to do is to get out of bed and go into another room to read or listen to music until you feel tired, then go back to bed.

How can I help myself get to sleep?

If you have sleep problems, try some of the following sleep remedies:  

Try sleep meditation, sleep yoga or sleep hypnosis:

Sleep meditation, You should be able to buy recordings of guided meditations which will help your muscles relax, your breathing become slow and deep and your thoughts to be replaced with dreamlike imagery.  

Yoga Nidra is a powerful meditation technique where the mind remains conscious during the normally ‘unconscious’ state associated with deep sleep. It is practised in the lying position and is an ideal practise for people who are having difficulty falling asleep. It is possible to download yoga nidra tracks from the internet.

Sleep hypnosis involves techniques like those of meditation – the best way is to purchase a sleep hypnosis CD which will help you let go of your thoughts and focus on relaxing each part of your body.

Practising yoga before bedtime can help release everything you’re holding onto – mentally or physically before sleep. It’s important to set an attainable time – even if only 10 minutes. Choose slower types of yoga such as hatha, yin or restorative yoga, using poses that are restorative, calming and inward-focused. Avoid back bends. Set your room temperature at a comfortable level, remove all electronic devices and use candles or an essential oil diffuser. Use a sleep mask for longer holds and perhaps add some background sleep music– such as binaural beats. 

Consider sleep vitamins and minerals

Before taking supplements, always check with your doctor – blood tests will reveal if you are lacking in any vitamins. The best and most natural way is to choose foods rich in sleep vitamins.    

  • Vitamin B3 – helps regulate the use of tryptophan, increases REM sleep, helps depression and decreases night-time awakenings

  • Vitamin B6 is essential in the production of serotonin – the ‘calming’ hormone that helps calm the body before falling asleep

  • Folic acid: a deficiency in folic acid is often found in those with insomnia

  • Calcium: a natural relaxant which has a calming effect on the nervous system

  • Magnesium: helps chronic sleep problems

Eat foods that help you sleep – and avoid those that don’t 

Try not to eat a big meal before bedtime as it can cause discomfort and indigestion but a small snack may help you to sleep. Research shows certain nutrients play a role in short- and long-term sleep duration. For better quality sleep, eat foods rich in lycopene which is found in red and orange-coloured foods, carbohydrates, vitamin C, selenium found in nuts, meat and shellfish and lutein/zeaxanthin rich foods – which are green, leafy vegetables. 

The best snack is one that contains complex carbohydrates and protein to optimise tryptophan levels.  Proteins help maintain a stable blood sugar level whilst sweeping and switch the body from alert mode to rest and digest mode. Tryptophan is the amino acid that the body needs to make sleep-inducing serotonin and melatonin. 

Eat the following foods to sleep better:

  • Bananas – rich in magnesium and potassium which helps relax overstressed muscles

  • Almonds – which contain sleep-promoting magnesium and proteins

  • Fish – containing vitamin B6 which encourages the production of melatonin, the sleep-inducing hormone triggered by darkness

  • Chickpeas – rich in vitamin B6

  • Low sugar, whole grain cereals – carbohydrate rich which increase the availability of tryptophan in the blood stream

  • Milk – calcium aids restful sleep, reducing stress and stabilising nerve fibres

  • Oatcakes with cheese – containing calcium, complex carbohydrates and protein

  • Marmite – contains natural sleep-inducing substances

Salmon
Chick peas
Almonds
Marmite

Try to avoid eating the following foods to sleep better:

  • Spicy food

  • Processed, high carbohydrates – pasta, rice and white bread which can cause heartburn and indigestion

  • Highly caffeinated substances – coffee, strong tea or dark chocolate

  • Citrus fruits which increase the stomach’s acidity and cause heartburn

  • Alcohol which reduces sleep quality

Curry
Pasta
Coffee
Lemon

Sleep aids: 

There are a variety of sleep aids on the market. Sleeping pills are a short-term option and they are most effective when used in conjunction with lifestyle changes. Prescription drugs today are less risky in terms of addiction, although the potential exists. Such drugs help patients fall asleep, stay asleep or both. Over the counter sleep aids include melatonin, valerian, products with antihistamines such as Benadryl, Sominex and Tylenol PM. All sleep aids or sleep medications must be used carefully and never combined with alcohol. Never increase the recommended dosage or drive having taken sleep medication.  

Sleep essential oils: 

Essential oils with calming, relaxing aromas can help you get to sleep. Swirl a few drops in a warm, soothing bath to calm your night  or use in a diffuser or sprinkle on a pillow. You should be able to buy sleep sprays to spray on your pillows

  • Lavender – slows the nervous system, decreases the heart rate and blood pressure

  • Vanilla – reduces the startle reflex, calms the mind and eases breathing problems

  • Jasmine – reduces tossing and turning, reduces anxiety and is calming

  • Ylang ylang – relieves stress and reduces anxiety

  • Cedarwood – relieves tension, has sedative qualities, reduces pain and minimises skin irritation

  • Lemon – lowers the heart rate in just 10 minutes, calming you down ready for sleep. Oranges and limes have a positive effect boosting serotonin ‘the happy hormone.’

  • Geranium – reduces stress and has a sedative effect

Get a referral or make an appointment at a sleep clinic /sleep centre

There are numerous sleep clinics around the country, usually offering both private and NHS treatments, which help with sleep insomnia. You will be invited to spend the day/night in the centre so various tests can be carried out depending on your sleep disorders.

Buy some comfortable sleepwear – or sleep without nightwear

If you’re too hot in bed, your core body temperature will struggle to fall which you need to trigger your sleep mechanism so make sure your sleepwear is loose and cool. If you’re having sleep problems, try sleeping without any nightclothes – you will be less restricted and your body will be able to regulate your core temperature better.

A woman stretching on a kitchen counter whilst holding a coffee cup.
A woman and a dog in a yellow armchair

Think about your sleep position

  1. Stomach sleeping - if you sleep on your stomach, you’re more likely to be restless; tossing and turning to get comfortable. You can strain your neck and lower back. If this is your preferred sleep position, try sleeping without a pillow or using an incredibly soft pillow to ensure your neck is comfortable.

  2. Back sleeping - if you sleep on your back, you can make low back pain worse and if you snore or have sleep apnea, it can make the conditions worse.

  3. Side sleeping – this can be one of the most comfortable positions – bend your knees slightly towards the chest in a foetal position. You can put a soft pillow between your knees to support your hips.

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