How much sleep do we need to be happy, healthy and productive?

Woman sleepingWhat do Exxon Valdez, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and the Challenger shuttle explosion all have in common? They are all international disasters in which a lack of sleep is believed to have contributed to their cause, according to the BBC.

We have all had times in our lives where we weren’t getting enough sleep. Grumpiness, poor concentration and forgetfulness are some symptoms you’re probably familiar with.

Many of us put up with symptoms of lack of sleep so we can work longer and party harder. But are the benefits of skimping on sleep worth it? A recent article in US Science News says studies have linked chronic sleep loss to obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and shorter lives.

Some evidence suggests that not getting enough sleep night after night may cause long-term — possibly permanent — changes in the brain. Some of these changes may even increase the risk of mental health problems such as depression.

If you’re one of the millions of people who lack sleep — and you want to be happier, healthier or slimmer — put “get enough sleep” high on your “to do” list today.

Why do we need to sleep?
How much sleep do we need to be healthy, happy and productive?
What problems can result if we don’t get enough sleep?
What can cause sleep problems?
Who is most at risk of not getting enough sleep?
What can we do to improve our sleep?

Why do we need to sleep?

Sleep is vital for health and wellbeing. The BBC says sleep plays a major role in brain development. We need sleep to maintain normal levels of cognitive skills, such as speech, memory, concentration, innovative and sharp thinking.

We heal faster when we are asleep, and some people have amazing answers to their problems and questions in their dreams.

… You are spiritually recharged during sleep. Adequate sleep is essential for joy and vitality in life…”

– Best-selling self-help author Dr. Joseph Murphy

How much sleep do we need to be healthy, happy and productive?

How much sleep we need varies from one person to the next. There does, however, appear to be a minimum amount of sleep that most adults need to be healthy and productive, which is at least six hours every night.

Jeff Worley in his article Why Do We Need to Sleep? says Bruce O’Hara, a UK associate professor of biology, has published over 40 articles and given dozens of presentations on his sleep-related research.

O’Hara believes we must be careful with claims people make about how much sleep they need. “Some people think they sleep very little, but if you measure their sleep, they actually sleep more than they think they do, or claim to. Ninety percent of the population needs at least six hours’ sleep a night, or their performance drops dramatically over successive days.”

The National Sleep Foundation in the US says experts believe that there is no “magic number” for how much sleep we need. Different age groups need different amounts, and we each vary in how much sleep we require.

The amount of sleep you need to function best may be different for you than for someone else of the same age and gender. You may feel great sleeping seven hours a night, but someone else might need nine hours to have a happy, productive life.

A 2005 study found that sleep needs vary across populations. The study calls for further research to find the traits within genes that may provide a “map” to explain how sleep needs differ among individuals.

The BBC says there is no set amount of time that everyone needs to sleep, because it varies from person to person.

Jim Horne from Loughborough University’s Sleep Research Centre, however, advises that: “The amount of sleep we require is what we need not to be sleepy in the daytime.”

What problems can result if we don’t get enough sleep?

Not getting enough sleep badly affects how well we think, feel and behave, and it can be dangerous.

Lack of sleep can cause us to:

  • gain weight. The BBC says research suggests that sleep loss might increase the risk of obesity. This is because chemicals and hormones that play a key role in controlling appetite and weight are released while we sleep.
  • increase our reaction times. O’Hara says sleepiness is the single largest factor in industrial accidents.
  • be a hazard on the road. One study found participants who got five hours’ sleep five nights in a row caused their driving skills to equal people with a blood alcohol level well over the legal driving limit, according to O’Hara.
  • increase our risk of diseases such as high blood pressure, diabetes, fibromyalgia and heart disease
  • be grumpy
  • have aches and tremors
  • be confused and disorientated
  • find it harder to learn compared to if we got enough sleep
  • lack concentration
  • have a poor memory
  • have slurred speech
  • think less clearly and make poor judgements
  • feel drowsy or exhausted
  • lack energy
  • have a less healthy immune system, so we are more likely to get colds and other infections
  • hallucinate and become delusional if we don’t sleep for days on end

What can cause sleep problems?

The American Psychological Association (APA) says sleep disorders can be linked to problems in the following systems:

  • brain and nervous system
  • cardiovascular system (the heart, blood vessels and blood)
  • immune system (defends, destroys and removes invading microorganisms and viruses from the body, and protects us from cancer)

Health problems and other factors can cause sleep problems, including:

  • insomnia
  • accidents
  • pain, such as back pain and pain caused by arthritis
  • high blood pressure and increased risk of heart attacks and strokes
  • emotional problems, such as depression and bipolar disorder (manic depression)
  • obesity, metabolic syndrome and diabetes
  • alcohol and drug abuse

Worries, stress and unresolved problems can be other causes of sleep problems, including insomnia. A lack of certain minerals, such as magnesium, can also cause insomnia.

Who is most at risk of not getting enough sleep?

The APA says the following groups are most at risk of lacking sleep:

  • physicians
  • night shift workers
  • truck drivers
  • parents
  • teenagers

What can we do to improve our sleep?

There are many things we can do to help us sleep better. Aside from popping sleeping pills, here are some ideas.

Treat health problems that are causing your sleep problem. If you lack magnesium, for example, you might suffer from insomnia as a result. A blood test can help find out if you are deficient in this mineral. Eating more magnesium-rich foods and taking magnesium supplements can treat a magnesium deficiency.

Close to bedtime, drink herbal teas or take herbal capsules or tablets that help improve sleep. Valerian, passionflower, lemon balm, hops and chamomile are some calming herbs that can be made into teas. Beware, certain herbs aren’t for everyone and can have side effects in some people. Read about the herb before you start taking it to avoid having bad effects from it, which might be serious.

Stop drinking stimulants, such as tea, coffee and energy drinks, a few hours before you go to bed.

Get into a regular sleep routine by going to bed at night and getting up at the same times each day.

Turn off your computer at least an hour before bedtime. A bright computer screen can stimulate your brain.

Keep the amount of light in your house low for a couple of hours before bedtime. Bright light at night can make us stay awake because it tricks the brain into thinking it’s daytime.

Lose weight if you are overweight. Excess weight can cause sleep apnea in some people, and losing weight, if you are overweight, can help treat this health problem.

Don’t do moderate or vigorous exercise close to bedtime.

Read a boring book shortly before going to bed.

Listen to relaxing music such as gentle classical music. Avoid loud dance music close to bedtime.

Worry and stress can cause problems falling asleep and staying asleep at night. Deal appropriately with problems to avoid them badly affecting your sleep.

Slowly read positive affirmations that help you sleep for at least 10 minutes before going to bed each night.

Practise relaxation exercises each night before bedtime, such as yoga and stretching.

Meditate at least once a day for 20 minutes. Meditation has heaps of benefits, including better sleep, sharper thinking and increased ability to deal with stress and worries.

Be patient when trying these ideas. Achieving positive results might take a few days or weeks, but if the changes improve your sleep without major side effects then using them is worth it.

written by Nyomi Graef

Carter, W, 2005, Home Doctor: Know Your Body & How to Look After It, Dingley, Australia: Hinkler Books

How Much Sleep Do We Really Need?, 2005, National Sleep Foundation,

Jacka, J, 1995, A-Z of Natural Therapies, Melbourne, Australia: Lothian Books

Murphy, J, 2000, The Power of Your Subconscious Mind, New York, USA: Bantam Books

Pelletier, K R, 2000, The Best Alternative Medicine: What Works? What Does Not?, New York, USA: Simon & Schuster

Sleep deprivation dangers, 1999, BBC News,

Somerville, R, (Ed.), 1997, The Alternative Advisor, Virginia, USA: Time-Life Books

Stein, R, 2005, Scientists Finding Out What Losing Sleep Does to a Body, The Washington Post,

Stewart, A, 1993, Tired All the Time, London, UK: Optima

The science of sleep, n.d., BBC,

Van Straten, M, 2004, The Good Sleep Guide, London, UK: Kyle Cathie Limited

Why sleep is important and what happens when you don’t get enough, 2005, American Psychological Association,

Worley, J, 2004, Bruce O’Hara: Why Do We Need to Sleep?, University of Kentucky,

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