Sleep is one of the most important things we can do to support our health. But how many hours do we need a night for optimum health and what’s the best way to get them?
Editor Jane Garton investigates.
We’re in the middle of a sleep-loss epidemic according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). Routinely getting fewer than six to seven hours sleep a night is thought to increase the risk of conditions such as cancer, diabetes, heart, disease and stroke as well as dampening down immunity. How much we sleep therefore can have a negative impact on our health.
So how many hours a night are optimum? “Probably the biggest sleep myth is that we all need eight hours’ a night,” says independent sleep expert Dr Neil Stanley. “That’s just an average rather than an ideal. Individual sleep need is a little like height – and to a large extent genetically determined.”
“Your personal sleep need is essentially the amount of sleep that allows you to feel awake, alert and refreshed during the following day. Very simply if you feel sleepy during the day then you are probably not, for whatever reason, getting the sleep you need during the night,” explains Stanley.
So what constitutes a good night’s sleep? Establishing a regular bedtime and wake up time is important as is winding down before bedtime. Stanley recommends preparing for bed at least half an hour beforehand; listening to the radio, sewing, taking a warm bath or quietly reading from a book or magazine. Resist the temptation to check emails or your Instagram feed – you’ll over stimulate the brain and take longer to settle.
Room temperature makes a difference too. A bedroom should be cool as well as dark, ideally between 15 and 21 C. And avoid sleeping with an electric blanket on, as this disturbs sleep patterns by increasing core body temperature.
The alternative options
If you find it hard to drop off or wake up in the middle of the night tossing and turning, an alternative is to consider natural remedies such as passionflower and valerian. These natural herbal remedies have been found to help promote healthy sleep patterns while relieving anxiety without the risk of side effects such as a foggy brain on waking.
Mindfulness meditation has also been found to help sleep in several recent studies[i]. Focusing on your breathing is a key technique. Simply breathe naturally in and out. Don’t force yourself to breathe deeply just be aware of your breath going in and out. If thoughts, emotions or awareness of your external surroundings start to intrude simply bring your mind back to your breathing without judgement and carry on.
Other sleep helpers
- Keep your bedroom for sleep (and sex) only – that means no laptops, tablets or TVs.
- Say no to caffeinated drinks from early afternoon onwards.
- Avoid catching up on sleep late in the day, although a post lunch nap can benefit some people.
- Resist that late night tipple. It may send you to sleep but chances are you’ll wake up a few hours later dehydrated.
- Regular exercise can help improve sleep patterns but make sure you do it at least four hours before bedtime. This gives your body time to cool down and a cooler body makes it easier to fall asleep.
- Put a few drops of lavender essential oil on your pillowcase.
- Don’t go straight to bed after an argument. Try to resolve it or at the very least say sorry. National Sleep Awareness Week is March 10th -16th. For more information visit their website .