How Much Sleep Do We Need?

“I’ll sleep when I die.”  That’s what I used to say when people wondered why I seemed to be on the go all the time. One time I recall scratching my head when someone told me they regularly got 10 hours of sleep. How do they find the time and why would they want to?

Being able to perform at high output is not only a trait popularized by media and well known figures in society, it is also a badge of honor. All the time in my circles I hear business leaders brag “I am on 24 by 7.”

In my case, I was either too busy, too excited or too distracted to to to bed in time to get more than 5 hours of sleep regularly.

My thinking on all of this started to change a few of years ago when my wife and I had kids. We realized (or I should say she knew and I started to catch on slowly) that sufficient sleep is imperative for a child’s physiological and psychological development. Click here to continue reading this post…

The problems related to sleep deprivation in adults are different, but no less severe. Dr David Dinges, Professor of Psychology in Psychiatry and Associate Director of the Center for Sleep and Respiratory Neurobiology in the University of Pennsylvania, studies the physiological, cognitive and functional changes resulting from sleep loss in humans. According to his research, insufficient sleep causes deficits in attention, motor skills, reflexes, and cognitive ability, and in case that’s not enough, sleep loss suppresses the immune system and puts stress on the heart. Not to mention that falling asleep while driving causes 1 in 5 vehicle accidents. There is also some evidence that lack of sleep causes negative emotional states, loss of vigor feelings of fatigue and confusion (see Sleep Deprivation at Scholarpedia)

While most studies show Americans sleep on average 6 or 7 hours a night, this is about 25% than the average in the 1960’s. If 6 hours sounds like a lot compared to what you normally get (and I certainly used to think so) consider this. Dinges research shows that even just 6 hours of sleep a night is detrimental. In one of his studies, people who slept 6 hours a night for 10 days had similar results to those who were completely sleep deprived for 1 day.

So how much is enough sleep?

Everyone is different in terms of sleep needs, but it is suffice to say that most of us need more sleep than we currently get. Lots more if the number of people who fall asleep right after a plane takes off or who fall asleep during meetings is any indication. From Van Dongen & Dinges, Principles & Practice of Sleep Medicine, 2000:

Everyone’s individual sleep needs vary. In general, most healthy adults are built for 16 hours of wakefulness and need an average of eight hours of sleep a night. However, some individuals are able to function without sleepiness or drowsiness after as little as six hours of sleep. Others can’t perform at their peak unless they’ve slept ten hours. And, contrary to common myth, the need for sleep doesn’t decline with age but the ability to sleep for six to eight hours at one time may be reduced.( Ref)

While some people claim that needing more sleep is hogwash, because they are productive on relatively little sleep, Dinges response is a challenge for them to visit his lab and prove there is no cost to their sleep habits (actually he believes most people get more sleep than they admit if they count nodding off during the day, naps and other sleep time outside the bedroom) .

Regardless of how the media or business people portray long hours and minimal rest, for me, running on half throttle during the day or having a heart attack early in life doesn’t seem all that heroic. My thinking is no longer “I will sleep when I die” but more “I dont get some sleep I probably will die.”

Make sure to get enough sleep or you my regret you didn’t.

7 Responses to How Much Sleep Do We Need?
  1. Odds ‘n Ends… « pinkvegan's blog
    February 19, 2010 | 11:49

    […] and the fact that we are all early to bed people – more on that here if you are interested.. well I don’t often have the time to post every day, but I do cook everyday. Even if we are […]

  2. […] Wake Up Early – my alarm goes off at 4:30 am and I am out of bed right away (no snooze button or internal negotiations about sleeping in – they are productivity killers). For more on sleep see How Much Sleep Do We Need. […]

  3. M Saiwn
    July 22, 2010 | 08:28

    at least 8 hours

  4. Anthony
    January 5, 2011 | 19:15

    Eliot, are you familiar with the book, “Lights Out: Sleep, Sugar, and Survival”? It is a very interesting study on the importance of deep sleep each night in regards to overall health, fitness, and cognitive functions.

  5. Eliot Burdett
    January 5, 2011 | 21:23

    I haven’t heard of the book, but will check it out. Thanks for the suggestion Anthony!

  6. Jeremiah Stanghini
    April 2, 2011 | 19:37

    I mentioned Brendan Brazier on one of your other posts, but it’s relevant here, too. Brazier explains that the foods we eat have an enormous effect on our quality of sleep, which is really what is important with regard to sleep. One can sleep 9 hours and still feel very tired/groggy (if they’re eating foods that make it harder on their body). I’d really recommend reading the first few chapters of his first book, because he really explains the theory behind what he’s talking about.

    With Love and Gratitude,


  7. Eliot Burdett
    April 2, 2011 | 20:39

    You are correct. Great addition to the discussion. Thanks Jeremiah!

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