Updated: Oct 14, 2020
Nothing is more important than sleep, and we now know this more than ever. As a result, how many hours of sleep you should get is a growing concern. The truth is, sometimes 5 hours is enough. Sometimes 10 hours is enough. But sometimes, no matter how long you sleep, it doesn’t seem to be enough.
Following the standard wisdom that you should get 7-9 hours of sleep per night is not a bad place to start—but it’s incomplete. It doesn’t account for such factors as when you sleep, your emotional relationship to sleep, or what “enough sleep” might mean for you. The answer to this question becomes more accessible when you throw away the stats, eliminate the need for a single answer, and start thinking about sleep a little more intuitively.
HOW MANY HOURS OF SLEEP CAN YOU GET?
If you didn’t have to follow a clock, how would you know when it’s time to sleep? And how would you know how much you slept?
How we relate to sleep has become unnatural. And that’s the main reason why, as a sleep coach, I see monitoring sleep hours as potentially causing more harm than good.
In a world bound by time agreements, however, the link between clocks and sleep is almost unavoidable. Nonetheless, you can use a more primitive mindset to better determine how much sleep you should be getting.
One thing will never change: darkness induces sleep and light promotes wakefulness. Darkness prompts the release of the sleep hormone melatonin, which then needs about 2 hours to incite sleep.
So, how many hours of sleep could you get tonight before sunrise wakes you up?
Doing the math myself, the difference between the earliest sleep could occur for me tonight and sunrise is 7.5 hours. That’s my “sleep gap,” or the opportunity for sleep allowed by darkness. However, 6 months from now, with the turning of the seasons, my sleep gap will be 10.5 hours.
From this frame of reference, getting 8 hours of sleep (which most people would gladly sign up for) could either be challenging or leave me overslept, which can feel just the same as underslept.
THE ANSWER ALSO DEPENDS ON YOUR PERSONAL CLOCK
Your body also has its own sleep clock, whose timing is unique to you. It tracks your individual needs for sleep and repair so it can keep time accordingly.
For instance, if Mother Nature offered you a 7.5 hour “sleep gap” due to a longer light cycle, but your body sustained more ATP (energy) production due to an increase in sun exposure, workload, and food availability (think prehistoric times), this would create a greater requirement for sleep, and maybe 8 hours or more would be perfect.
It’s the dance between light, darkness, and your sleep clock that truly determines how many hours of sleep you should get.
COUNTING THE HOURS CAN GET IN THE WAY
A more effective way to think of measuring sleep is in terms of cycles, rather than hours.
As you go through the night, repairing from the wear and tear of your day, your body isn’t thinking in terms of hours—and neither should you. Sleep’s intentions are usually different than ours. You may think about sleep as a time to let go and rest, but sleep is thinking in terms of a to-do list that it carries out in increments.
Sleep doesn’t care about hours or interruptions, as long as those interruptions don’t interfere with a sleep cycle—a roughly 90-minute period where your body travels from light sleep to deep sleep, and then REM.
Strategizing from this perspective, extending your sleep duration by only 30 minutes could add an extra cycle of sleep to your night. You can use a sleep calculator to help you determine when to sleep and wake up so that you don’t interfere with one of these cycles.
If you need to add another sleep cycle to your night and are out of ideas on how to do so, try these creative sleep tips.
SLEEP LESS AND ACCOMPLISH MORE
When your sleep cycles take place is more important than how much sleep you get.
The first few cycles of sleep can be considered a human’s hibernation period, where the endocrine system works most fluidly to heal the body. Melatonin levels are at their highest, and leptin in the hypothalamus stimulates a chain of hormonal events that accomplish maintenance tasks like tissue repair, growth hormone release, autophagy, and fat burning, just to name a few.
Sleep’s workload is heaviest during this period, and it’s lightest as sunrise approaches, when the magnetism from light begins introducing cortisol and transitions you into wakefulness. This law of nature can’t be manipulated—and that’s why sleeping during any other time interval automatically reduces your quality of sleep.
Everyone’s sleep needs are different, but one thing is universal: The sleep that takes place from about 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. is the sleep you should be getting.
Here’s the beauty of thinking in terms of cycles and hibernation. If you happen to consistently wake up around 3 a.m. (a stressful ocurrance for many), it’s likely you just accomplished deep, high-quality sleep. This mindset, versus thinking something may be wrong, will make getting in a few more sleep cycles much more attainable.
TO SLEEP OR NOT TO SLEEP MORE
If you find it a daily struggle to get out of bed and maintain energy throughout the day, you likely aren’t sleeping enough.
Understand, though, that waking up doesn’t need to look like a commercial for the latest miracle sleep product. Waking up from a night of restorative sleep is a lot like stepping out of a car after driving for hundreds of miles—especially when your alarm goes off in the middle of a sleep cycle. It takes a little time to adjust.
Before making judgments about your sleep quantity, try implementing a morning routine that grounds your clarity. Here’s my go-to morning routine for this:
Drink a warm glass of water with lemon
Face the sun for 20 minutes with your bare feet on the grass
Take a cold (or colder than usual) shower
Then cue into your state of being, as well as throughout the day, and notice if starting your day this way eliminates the tendency to misinterpret unreleased energy as fatigue.
Also, pay attention to how different your day would be if you had slept more. What wouldn’t get done? Or how are your nutritional choices influenced? Ultimately, being honest with yourself about needing more sleep will connect you with your most intuitive answer to these questions.
GOING TO SLEEP WHEN YOU SHOULD
Going to sleep when you should is just as important as how many hours (or cycles) of sleep you should get. If it takes you more than 20 minutes to fall asleep, you may be experiencing melatonin suppression from exposure to blue light (the light emitted from overhead lighting and electronics).
Studies have shown that just a tiny bit of blue light exposure before bed will delay melatonin release and the onset of sleep up to 90 minutes, if not more. That’s an entire sleep cycle you can get back, just by wearing glasses that block blue light before bed.
Blocking blue light can also help if you struggle to slow down your mind or experience fear of not falling asleep. Nothing eliminates emotional interference like natural melatonin release. If you’re plagued by chronic insomnia, consider that it may be not reasonable to go from, say an average of 4 hours of sleep to 8 hours overnight. A solid night’s sleep is always a possibility, but not achieving a drastic change doesn’t have to come at the cost of progress.
A chronic focus on not sleeping enough becomes one of the biggest obstacles an insomniac needs to overcome.
When you can yield (only initially) to 4 hours of sleep being enough—and truly understand that this is enough for the time being—5 hours will come soon, and 6 hours will come even sooner. From this place, you can start to make more intuitive judgments about how many hours of sleep you should be getting.
This process seems counterintuitive, but it’s a powerful tool that’s used for overcoming insomnia and building sleep intuition. Before too long, when you’re ready to add more sleep, you’ll know exactly how much that is and how to do so.