We all know that sleep plays a vital role in our physical and mental well-being. Yet, logging enough hours of shut-eye is a major issue in the United States: 37 percent of American adults under age 39 and 40 percent between 40 and 59 report sleeping fewer than the recommended seven to nine hours a night, according to the American Sleep Association.
That said, we all have our own individual sweet spots. While some people might function perfectly fine on the minimum seven hours, others may drag through their day if they fall short of 10.
Why Sleep Needs Vary
So why do some people need more Zs than others? “The answer is rooted in genetics,” says W. Christopher Winter, M.D., FAASM, president of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine and author of The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep Is Broken and How to Fix It. “We all have a genetic baseline sleep need.”
Outside of being born with different baselines, experiencing an increase in your sleep needs may be associated with a medical issue or an increase in exercise habits. “I see this frequently with the professional athletes I work with,” Winter says. “They need more sleep during their in-season than they need in the off-season.”
How To Determine Your Own Sleep Schedule
So, how does someone figure out how much rest their body requires? Your age is a good place to start.
“While adults older than 65 may only need seven to eight hours of sleep to feel rested, it is normal for other adults to need up to nine hours each night,” says Brandon R. Peters, M.D., FAASM, a physician at Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle and the author of Sleep Through Insomnia: End The Anxiety and Discover Sleep Relief With Guided CBT-I Therapy.
From there, Peters recommends self-monitoring your snooze habits. One relatively simple experiment entails setting aside a full week in which you go to bed at the same time each night and get up whenever your body is ready to start the day.
“This means turning off the alarm clock and letting yourself wake naturally,” Peters says. “By observing a consistent bedtime and allowing yourself to sleep in as long as desired, you can discover your current sleep need.”
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Why do you need a full week to draw an accurate conclusion? Because, at first, you’ll be paying down recent sleep debt, Peters says. Also known as ‘sleep deficit,’ this is the difference between the hours of slumber you require and the hours you’ve actually been getting. “Then, you should gradually approach your sleep need,” Peters explains.
Throughout your experiment, jot down the approximate time you drifted off into dreamland and the time you woke up feeling refreshed. Include your total hours of Z’s in your notes, too (a tracker app could help with this exercise). Take a look at your average time spent asleep and use that as a gauge of your magic number.
“It should be noted that sleep need is not equivalent to the total hours spent in bed,” adds Peters. “Everyone will spend some time awake in the night, and this inevitably diminishes the amount of sleep obtained.”
6 Steps To Get The Sleep You Need
Once you’ve figured out your ideal nightly slumber number, it’s time to take a closer look at your quality of Zs, which is defined by a handful of criteria, including falling asleep within 30 minutes of getting under the covers, sleeping throughout the night with no more than one instance of waking up, and feeling well-rested in the morning, per the Sleep Foundation.
Ready to up your snooze game? Consider trying these six strategies:
1. Schedule Wind-Down Time
One hour before bedtime, do something enjoyable and relaxing, such as meditating, journaling, listening to a podcast, or reading a book or magazine, according to the ASA.
Note that it’s imperative to say goodnight to your smartphone, tablet, and TV during this nightly ritual. The reason: Electronic devices emit blue light that can disrupt the body’s ability to produce melatonin, a hormone that supports the circadian rhythm—the body’s internal 24-hour clock that determines our sleep-wake cycle.
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2. Scale Back On Stimulants
To calm your mind and body to prime it for optimal rest, it’s wise to cut off stimulants, like caffeine, earlier in the day. The Sleep Foundation advises having your last cup of caffeinated coffee or tea at least five hours before hitting the sheets. Additionally, alcohol (which produces both stimulant and sedative effects) should be curtailed at least three hours before bedtime.
3. Get In The Cool Zone
Before your turn off the lights for the night, set the thermostat around 67 degrees for ideal shut-eye, states the AASM. Sleeping in a comfortably cool environment mimics your body temperature, which naturally decreases when you’re snoozing.
4. Take Daily Naps
While napping is usually not recommended for people who have difficulty falling asleep at night, taking a daily nap may help those who have longer-than-average rest needs, Peters says. In fact, a study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism (JCEM) found that a 30-minute nap could counteract the harmful effects caused by lack of snoozing, including hormonal imbalances that impact immune function and stress response.
5. Look For Underlying Issues
If getting a good night’s rest feels impossible and fatigue has become your typical state of being, consult with a specialist.
“Sleep quality may be affected by untreated sleep disorders, like sleep apnea and insomnia,” says Peters. According to statistics from the ASA, 50 to 70 million American adults suffer from a sleep disorder. Insomnia tops the list as the most common, but obstructive sleep apnea affects approximately 25 million men and women nationwide.
6. Catch Some Morning Sun
As soon as you open your eyes in the morning, pull up the shades and begin to wake up your body. “It’s helpful to get 15 minutes of sunlight upon awakening in order to reinforce the circadian pattern,” says Peters. Supporting your inner circadian rhythm will make it easier to wake up and fall asleep at the same time each day.