As you awoke to the familiar buzzing of your alarm clock this morning, you were either recharged and refreshed or utterly unsatisfied.
What exactly determined how you felt following your sleep? Is it an objective phenomenon or does it vary entirely from one person to the next? AM sought to explore these questions and more as we ultimately attempt to answer, once and for all: How much sleep do we really need? First, however, it’s important to understand how much sleep we're currently getting.
How Much Sleep Are We Getting?
Decades or even centuries ago, people routinely slept eight to nine hours a night. Today, however, it’s clear that times have changed. In a world of BlackBerrys, the internet, severe deadlines, a declining economy, and ever-increasing stress, there simply aren't enough hours in the day for sleep.
This point is made crystal clear even when we take a look back over the last few years. According to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), a U.S. nonprofit organization of researchers, patients and health-care facilities, 20 percent of Americans reported getting six hours of sleep or less in 2009, compared to 13 percent in 2001.
Similarly, 28 percent of Americans reported getting eight hours of sleep or more in 2009 compared to 38 percent in 2001. These findings, based on a telephone survey of 1,000 Americans, echo concerns about the economy as well, where about one in six (16 percent) reported that their weekly sleep was being disturbed due to financial concerns. However, there is conflicting research on how much sleep Americans are getting.
A government-run research study, termed the Americans’ Use of Time Survey, contradicts the notion that sleep patterns have changed. Since 2003, the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau have gathered time-use information on Americans through time diaries. The team last reported, in 2007, that Americans sleep 8.6 hours a day, a figure that seems to contradict findings of the NSF.
Critics, however, say that the government study overestimates sleep, as it counts all time in bed as sleep. And almost anyone who has spent time lying in bed staring at the ceiling will understand the nature of that criticism.
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Harms of Sleep Deprivation
Regardless of whether we truly are sleeping less or not, the harms of sleep deprivation cannot be argued. Not only can a lack of sleep lead to serious health consequences for you, but it can also harm those around you. Numerous studies have shown a lack of sleep to be associated with the following negative consequences:
— Increased risk of motor-vehicle accidents
— Increase in body mass index (BMI) due to an increased appetite caused by sleep deprivation
— Increased risk of diabetes and heart problems
— Increased risk for psychiatric conditions including depression and substance abuse
— Decreased ability to pay attention, react to signals or remember new information
With such convincing data on the harms of sleep deprivation, is the answer then to sleep as much as possible? Unfortunately, no: Other research has found that long sleep durations (nine hours or more) are also associated with increased illness, accidents and even death.
Researchers describe this relationship as a "U-shaped" curve where both sleeping too little and sleeping too much may put you at risk. The answer, then, lies somewhere in between.
How Much Sleep Do We Really Need?
Although there is no "magic number,” the NSF recommends that most adults get 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night. Anything below or beyond will carry health consequences, at least for some. Also, keep in mind that sleep needs vary by age, with recommendations for newborns in the 10- to 18-hour range.
However, experts are quick to note that you should use these recommendations not as a golden rule, but as a general rule of thumb since research will never be able to pinpoint an exact figure.The reason? Individual needs will most certainly vary. Genetics, as well as your environment, will play a huge role in determining just how refreshed you feel after sleep.
The real gauge then becomes one of observation. Do you feel productive during the day? Healthy? Alert? Do you depend on caffeine to survive? And do you feel sleepy when driving? These are the types of questions that you need to ask yourself if indeed you are questioning whether or not you are getting a sufficient amount of sleep.
Sleep to Dream
If you decide that you are indeed lacking in sleep, just relax, answers are everywhere. Sleep deprivation is a common ailment, one that can be easily overcome. For that, however, you’re on your own. Just remember: Don’t lose any sleep over it.