Sleep is crucial for our overall well-being, yet many of us tend to overlook its importance. With hectic schedules and endless commitments, we often sacrifice sleep to accommodate our busy lives. But how much sleep do we actually need? We often hear 7 to 8 hours is ideal, but is that true? Can I be just as healthy if I get less than 6 hours of sleep each night? What can 7 or 8 hours of sleep do for me that less than 6 hours can’t?
In this article, we’ll uncover the truth behind the optimal amount of sleep your body requires and explore the reasons why prioritizing adequate sleep is crucial for your physical and mental health.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, the recommended sleep duration varies based on age groups, but for most adults that number is 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night. Most of us have 8 hours engrained in our brains as the magic number. Do you know how many people actually get the recommended amount of sleep each night? According to a 2020 survey done by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, 85% of Americans don’t get the recommended 7 or more hours of sleep each night.
Matthew Walker is a prominent sleep researcher who wrote a book called Why We Sleep, it’s a wonderful book and if sleep science really interests you, I highly recommend it. In his book he details a study done by researchers at the University of Chicago who observed about 500 healthy midlife adults with no signs of atherosclerosis or heart disease. They tracked their sleep and cardiovascular health for several years, and they found that those who slept just 5 to 6 hours each night or less had a 200 to 300 percent increase in risk for developing calcification or plaque buildup in their coronary arteries over the next 5 years in comparison to people sleeping 7 to 8 hours each night. The coronary arteries are the arteries that supply blood to your heart and plaque buildup can result in a heart attack if plaque breaks off and a blood clot forms around it, blocking blood flow and oxygen supply to the heart. So, sleeping just 6 hours or less each night significantly increases your risk for heart disease.
Yet, 1 out of every 3 adults are trying to survive on 6 hours or less of sleep each night.
Studies consistently show that sleeping 6 hours or less each night is associated with increased risk for not just cardiovascular disease, but diabetes, obesity, Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, hormone dysfunction, gut dysbiosis, weakened immune function, and even cancer. And that is not an exhaustive list, there’s more. There’s a plethora of literature at your fingertips in a simple pubmed search indicating that inadequate sleep contributes to all of the conditions I listed, but if you want to hear more about any of these conditions in particular and how lack of sleep can contribute to its development, let me know in the comments, I’m happy to dive into any of these in more detail if there’s something that you’re curious about.
Now while there may be people that can survive on less than 6 hours of sleep each night, that number is very small. Matthew Walker said this in his book and I’ve heard him repeat it in interviews as well, that the number of people that can survive on less than 6 hours of sleep each night without showing any impairments in their health rounded to a whole number and expressed as a percent of the population is zero.
So, the vast majority of us should be aiming for more than 7 hours and now that we know what the research says about consistently sleeping less than 6 hours each night, it’s pretty easy to see why the recommendation is 7 to 9 hours.
With so many people not getting the recommended amount of sleep each night begs the question, why are we getting so little sleep? Well, 50 to 70 million people in the US suffer from sleep disorders. While there are many factors that can cause sleep disorders, a big one is definitely stress. The Sleep Foundation did a survey and over 54% of respondents said that stress and anxiety were the top reasons they couldn’t get to sleep.
In addition to stress and anxiety there are a lot of other behavioral factors that result in people not getting enough sleep. Many people are burning the midnight oil by trying to catch up on work or schoolwork in the evening. Entrepreneurs in particular often find themselves working too late into the night because they don’t have solid boundaries around when it’s time to put work away.
A lot of parents are up late, juggling kids, work, and household responsibilities.
But an interesting culprit emerged from a survey done by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. They found that 88% of US adults who responded to the survey admitted to losing sleep because they stayed up late watching multiple episodes of a TV show or streaming series. Another theme that has come up in my wellness practice over the years is people losing sleep because they stayed up late scrolling on social media. Is this something that you can relate to? Let me know in the comments… have you ever lost sleep because you stayed up late watching a TV show or streaming series, or were scrolling on social media. I thought that statistic was mind-blowing – although I can absolutely see how true it is. 88% of us lose sleep to binge watch TV and I’m sure social media or even gaming are similar in their capability to distract us to the point of losing sleep.
Getting caught up in technology and our devices is causing us to lose sleep and unless we get real honest with ourselves about what’s really important and start establishing boundaries around those habits, we’re going to be sleep deprived and our health will suffer for it.
So, what does a nightly 7 to 8 hours of sleep do for you that less than 6 hours doesn’t?
Getting an adequate amount of quality sleep improves cognitive function. With a well-rested brain, we experience sharper focus, better memory retention, and problem-solving skills. And it doesn’t stop there – our mood also benefits from proper rest, as sleep helps regulate emotions, keeping irritability and anxiety in check.
Physical health benefits of sleep include boosting the immune system, better neurological regulation, improved health of the gut microbiome, cardiovascular well-being, better hormone regulation, and improved blood glucose control. The benefits to hormone and blood sugar regulation result in healthier weight management as the hunger and satiety hormones are balanced, we make healthier food choices when we’re well rested, our cells are more responsive to the insulin signal for getting glucose into our cells for energy production, and there’s improvement of our other metabolic hormones, such as cortisol and thyroid hormones.
Both the physical and mental benefits of sleep allow for increased productivity throughout the day. This should peak your interest if productivity is important to you. If you tend to stay up late trying to get things done and then find yourself exhausted and unproductive the next day, maybe even reliant on caffeine to get you going, an alternative and more effective approach is to prioritize sleep instead of working late into the evening. Sleep may be the most powerful productivity tool you have. Also, if you do tend to rely on caffeine, you may want to listen to my episode on sleep pressure to learn why it’s important to cut caffeine off by noon.
Let’s not forget about stress. Sleep is the ultimate stress-buster. A restful night provides the ideal opportunity for the body to relax and recover, which leads to reduced stress levels, more balance in the nervous system and stress response mechanism, and improved resilience to life’s challenges.
This list of benefits isn’t exhaustive either, there are certainly more. Adequate sleep improves every mental and physical system in our bodies which is why I often say that sleep may just be the most impactful health-promoting activity you can engage in.
In our fast-paced society, it’s easy to neglect the importance of a solid night of adequate quality sleep. However, as we’ve discussed, getting over 7 hours of shut-eye each night isn’t a luxury; it’s a necessity. Adequate sleep is a fundamental pillar of overall health and well-being. Consistently getting less than 6 hours results in negative mental and physical health consequences, whereas getting more than 7 hours results in a multitude of benefits for your brain and body.
High stress levels and chronic stress, as well as circadian rhythm disorders are factors that can impact your ability to sleep well.
If you are experiencing chronic stress or abnormally high levels of stress, these articles will provide inspiration on how to reduce stress:
Circadian rhythm disorders can make it difficult to get adequate amounts of quality sleep. This article covers how these disorders can impact brain and neurological health and natural therapies that can help: