SLEEP ∙ 3 minutes read

How much sleep do you need each night?

By Joseph Lee | Medically reviewed by Dr Jaskirt Matharu

Shakespeare once wrote, “we are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep” in his famous play, The Tempest. Even though he was using poetic license to communicate something a little more ‘final’ than sleep, he captured the close association of sleep within the cycle of life.

Although sleep keeps us busy for one-third of our lives, sometimes our relationship with it can be a tempestuous one. People who have a turbulent experience with sleep can be left feeling irritable, restless and with a fuzzy head when they don’t get enough shut-eye. But when we sleep well, the benefits of sleep provide us with rest, recovery and if you’re lucky, sweet dreams. 

Sleep enables our bodies and brains to recover from the events that have happened in the day. Whilst our bodies are less active and mainly still whilst we sleep, our brains are a hub of activity. During sleep, our brain is constantly recalling and storing information about experiences we’ve had when we’re awake. It’s for this reason that sleep is directly linked with the consolidation of memories.

How many hours of sleep should you have? 

Sleep boosts our well-being and enables us to perform well at daily tasks, but there is still some contention about how much we actually need. On the whole, the average amount of sleep per night ranges from less than six hours to more than nine hours.

Some sleep specialists argue that the average adult only needs around six hours of sleep each night, and anything more than half a dozen hours doesn’t achieve further needs of sleep. 

However, the National Sleep Foundation has set out some sleep duration recommendations to help you know how much sleep you need each night. Over our lifetime, the amount of sleep we need changes depending on age, so here are the average amount of hours of sleep needed each night for different age categories:

  • Newborn babies - between 14 and 17 hours
  • Infants - between 12 and 15 hours
  • Toddlers - between 11 and 14 hours
  • Age 3-5 - between 10 and 13 hours
  • School-aged children - between 9 and 11 hours
  • Teenagers - 8 to 10 hours
  • Young adults and adults - 7 to 9 hours 
  • Older adults - 7 to 8 hours

How does lack of sleep affect people at work?

There are some jobs that mean not getting enough sleep can have life-threatening outcomes. For example, people that use heavy machinery, lorry drivers and those that need to make decisions that could immediately impact people’s lives are potentially risking the livelihoods of others by not getting enough sleep. 

Excessive daytime sleepiness is an important occupational health issue for hospital nurses. One study into excessive daytime sleepiness among hospital nurses showed that around 26% of nurses were over-tired when doing their daily job. For people that administer drugs, operate medical machinery and look after vulnerable people, it’s clear that mistakes made from sleep deprivation in hospital staff could have fatal consequences.

What happens if you don’t get enough sleep?

Sleep deficit or ‘sleep debt’ can be experienced due to unhealthy lifestyle factors and stress. Sleep deprivation is a key problem in our ‘always-on’, device-dependent lives. Sleep deprivation is a problem for society at large, increasing the risk of obesity and diabetes.

When adults consistently sleep less than the recommended 7-8 hours each night, it increases the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Research suggests that insufficient sleep allows the accumulation of amyloid, which can trigger a decline in cognition and lead to Alzheimer's disease. 

Traffic accidents due to fatigue from tiredness are a point of concern on UK roads. According to research gathered by the Automobile Association, one in eight UK drivers have admitted to falling asleep at the wheel, and a whopping 37% have said they’ve been so tired they were worried they’d fall asleep at the wheel, yet shockingly still did it. Worryingly, men are also three times as likely as women to fall asleep when driving.

What happens if you sleep too much?

Long sleeping, when you sleep for more than nine hours in a 24-hour period, can have adverse impacts on our physical health and mental wellbeing. If you suffer from long sleeping (oversleeping) it doesn’t mean that you get your z’s all in one go - a key symptom of too much sleep is excessively napping during the day. If you suffer from excessive daytime sleepiness, you could be experiencing hypersomnia. 

If you sleep too little, your chances of developing heart disease may rise, but when an adult sleeps more than they should, their risk of developing coronary heart disease also increases. Just one hour more sleep than you need each night could increase heart disease risk by 7%.

Other potentially fatal health problems can arise from prolonged periods of not sleeping, including increased chances of diabetes and getting a stroke. But research suggests that a significant proportion of individuals who suffer from excessive sleeping don't actually seek medical attention. If excessive sleeping is getting in the way of your quality of life, you should definitely see a GP. There are also natural sleeping supplements that can help you get a healthy amount of sleep. 

How do you catch up on sleep?

Sleep restores us and it enables our body and brain to face the day ahead. But it’s hard to catch up on sleep if you miss out on it, that’s why it’s important to get enough z’s in the first place. Some research shows that it might take up to 96 hours to recover from losing just one hour of sleep

The only way to catch up on sleep is by getting more of it. 

The bottom line 

The average adult should be getting between 7 and 9 hours of sleep every 24 hours. There’s lots of evidence to suggest a link between adverse health outcomes and too little and too much sleep. Getting the right amount of sleep for your age range will ensure that your body functions properly without increasing the chances of health problems.

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