Getting enough sleep is the foundation of good health, yet one in three adults say they are chronically sleep-deprived. Regularly falling short of the recommended number of hours will make you feel groggy the following day, and the sleep you do get won’t really feel restorative. Not everyone needs the same amount of sleep, but without the recommended seven to nine hours a night, your physical and mental health will be impaired.
Sleep may seem like a passive activity, but restful sleep literally recharges and rebuilds your body. While you’re sleeping, your body is working around the clock to balance hormones, repair muscles, build body tissues, make new proteins and move toxins and waste products out of your lymphatic system. Your muscles also relax, and your breathing rate slows down, so your body can focus on cleaning the slate for a new day.
Good sleep habits can make a huge difference in how you feel on a day-to-day basis. Just like you might prioritize proper nutrition or exercise, it’s important to establish a good bedtime routine that sets you up for getting the right amount of sleep for you.
[READ: Sleep and Aging.]
Do You Really Need 8 Hours of Sleep?
You’ve likely heard that you need to get at least eight hours of sleep per night, but there isn’t an exact amount of sleep that applies to everyone. Your ideal sleep duration depends on your age as well as your daily routine, lifestyle habits, medical history and genetics.
For example, newborns need lots of sleep to support their rapid growth and development, but as they reach the infant and toddler stages, they need less and less. The same is true as teenagers grow into young adults.
If you’re an overnight shift worker or you have a job that requires you to work odd hours, like a flight attendant, it may be more difficult for you to get enough sleep each night. In this case, it’s even more important to make sure that the sleep you’re getting is quality sleep: You fall asleep quickly and stay asleep throughout the night (or whenever your designated sleeping hours are). The same is also true for manual laborers and people with physically demanding jobs.
[READ: Does Melatonin Work for Sleep?]
How Much Sleep You Need by Age
The National Sleep Foundation breaks down sleep recommendations by age group or life stage. As a general rule, babies and children need more sleep to support their rapid growth and development, while older adults can get away with less. If you habitually get fewer hours of sleep than recommended, it can lead to fatigue, difficulty concentrating and even serious health problems and chronic disease.
These recommendations apply to people without underlying health conditions, including sleep disorders. If you have a health concern, it’s best to get a targeted recommendation that’s based on your medical history and lifestyle.
Newborns (0-3 months): 14-17 hours
Newborns need a lot of sleep to support their growth, but these hours may not be consecutive. Usually, this is broken up into eight hours during the day and eight to nine hours at night.
Infants (4-11 months): 12-15 hours
Toddlers (1-2 years): 11-14 hours
Preschoolers (3-5 years): 10-13 hours
School-aged children (6-13 years): 9-11 hours
Teens (14-17 years): 8-10 hours
Young adults and adults (18-64 years): 7-9 hours
Seniors (65-plus years): 7-8 hours
[READ: Foods for Better Sleep.]
What Happens If You Don’t Get Enough Sleep?
Fatigue is the most obvious, and immediate, consequence of sleep deprivation. There are more serious risks of not getting enough sleep too. Drowsiness from lack of sleep can lead to irritability and seriously impair concentration and mental acuity.
According to the American Sleep Association, sleep deprivation is akin to intoxication or worse when it comes to driving and hand-eye coordination. It slows down reaction time, interferes with the ability to make quick decisions and negatively impacts attention.
Aside from these acute symptoms, not getting enough sleep can also have long-term effects on your health. Sleep is essential for the proper functioning of all your body systems, from your nervous system to your immune system.
Lack of quality sleep is linked to:
— Weight gain and obesity: Sleep deprivation throws off the balance of ghrelin and leptin, two hormones that control your hunger signals — telling you when you’re hungry and when you’re full.
— Heart disease and high blood pressure: Sleep helps rebuild and repair your blood vessels. When you don’t get enough sleep, it can negatively affect your entire circulatory system.
— Impaired immune function: According to the Mayo Clinic, people who don’t get enough sleep are more susceptible to viruses, like the common cold, and generally take longer to recover after an illness.
Sleep is also connected to your emotional health. Research shows that people who get fewer than six hours of sleep per night were about 2.5 times more likely to say they didn’t feel mentally well the next morning. Sleep deprivation can worsen existing issues, like anxiety too.
How Can You Improve Your Sleep?
Creating better sleep habits, or improving your sleep hygiene, can make a world of difference in your sleep quality. Try these tips to help you fall asleep faster and experience more restful sleep.
Stick to a bedtime routine. Going to bed at the same time every night and waking up at the same time each day (yes even on the weekends) can help your body get into a routine that makes it easier to fall asleep when you do go to bed. Schedule your routine so you can get the recommended hours of sleep per night for your age. Similarly, try not to oversleep or nap during the day as this can impact your usual sleep schedule.
Keep the lights off. Create a comfortable sleep environment by keeping your room as dark as possible.
Power down. Artificial blue lights include those that come from your laptop, cell phone and tablet. This blue light can negatively affect melatonin, a hormone that helps control your sleep/wake cycles. Turn off your electronic devices at least 30 minutes before you go to bed and avoid checking your phone in the middle of the night.
Update your bedding. Sometimes you may have trouble sleeping simply because you’re uncomfortable. Upgrade your bedding and get a pillow that’s comfortable and suitable for your sleeping style. You may also need to buy a new mattress, which should be replaced every 7 to 10 years or when your sleeping preferences change.
Cut the caffeine. Avoid caffeine within six hours of bedtime. Research shows that caffeine can disrupt sleep even hours later.
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