Sleepytime Saturdays: How much sleep do you really need? And what happens when you don’t get it?

So, where sleep is concerned, how much is really enough? Last month, the National Sleep Foundation (yes, this exists!) released amongst the first-ever concrete guidelines for how much sleep we need on a daily basis:

  • Newborns (0-3 months): 14-17 hours
  • Infants (4-11 months): 12-15 hours
  • Toddlers (1-2 years): 11-14 hours
  • Preschoolers (3-5 years): 10-13 hours
  • School-Age Children (6-13 years): 9-11 hours
  • Teenagers (14-17 years): 8-10 hours
  • Young Adults (18-25 years): 7-9 hours
  • Adults (26-64 years): 7-9 hours
  • Older Adults (65+ years): 7-8 hours

But while this is a definite step in the right direction, I have a problem with absolute numbers. Because as highly individualistic beings, we all have different optimum levels for sleep. Some of us have a physical makeup that could function beautifully on 6 hours of shut-eye, while others need 9 hours. And what’s more, some of us could sleep every minute of the prescribed 7-9 hours and still wake up groggy and unable to function well due to that frequent phenomenon known as “toxic sleep”. So, how do you know what’s your correct bedtime?

The easiest way is to start listening to your body very carefully. There are some signs of sleep deprivation that we can recognise a mile off: think dark under-eye circles and exhaustion. Then there are those that are more insidious, speaking of a far deeper problem and yet almost impossible to link with sleepless nights. Like depression. Or headaches. Or weight gain. Or even those repeated colds.

Here are some signs you may need to make sleep a more urgent priority.

sleepytime saturday 1You are forgetful, unfocused or disorganised

Lack of sleep can lead to ADD-like symptoms (that’s Attention Deficit Disorder!). You may find yourself reading the same paragraph over and over again, without really retaining anything. Or you may find your attention wandering during conversations. Or you may approach meals with zombie-like distraction. Or you may even find it difficult to focus on clearing the dishes, making the bed or one of the hundreds of little tasks that make up the day.

The fallouts are endless but the underlying problem is consistent: sleep deprivation has been linked to a whole lot of cognitive problems, including difficulty in focusing and paying attention, lower alertness and concentration spans, confusion and forgetfulness. Extreme cases see drivers falling asleep behind the wheel (drowsy driving is responsible for at least 100,000 automobile crashes, 71,000 injuries and 1,550 fatalities EVERY year) and mothers accidentally drowning their kids in the bath, so catch it before things get deeper and darker.

You’re never in the mood for sex

It may well be the oldest excuse in the book but the honey-I’m-too-tired cliche is actually supported by science. According to researchers, chronic sleep deprivation can lead to lowered sexual desire in both men and women. And it goes beyond simple exhaustion – lack of sleep can also elevate levels of cortisol (the stress hormone), which just makes things worse. So, if you or your partner just can’t get in the mood, you might want to spend some extra time between the sheets – sleeping.

You’re crabby, cranky and grumpy – all rolled into one

Again, it’s not just the exhaustion talking: studies show that sleepy people are more likely to behave in a selfish, dissatisfied and vengeful fashion. According to Dr. David Mastin, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock: “It may be that the sleepier you are, the more likely your musings are to be angry thoughts about how others could have done better.” So if you can’t stop thinking how everyone else is to blame or snapping at everyone who comes into your orbit, pause to consider how many hours you’ve been clocking in bed each night.

You’re weepy

Do you find yourself tearing up over a TV commercial? Or crying copiously over every conceived slight from a friend or partner, imagined or real? Or sobbing through a book? In short, are you becoming dedicated to finding the dark clouds around every silver lining? Sleep deprivation may be to blame, once again. In simple language, lack of sleep sends your emotions into overdrive, creating uncontrolled, over-the-top responses to even the simplest situations. Not a happy way to live, for sure.

sleepytime saturday 2You’re clumsier than usual

Though I am fairly well coordinated on regular days, sometimes it’s a drip-drop-splatter-stumble fest for hours on end. I will knock over the alarm clock, pour the milk onto the floor, stub my toe against the bed frame, drop the Kindle, smash the tea cup, spill water on the phone… life suddenly feels like a slapstick routine! What makes for these messy hours? Yes, lack of sleep. AGAIN. That’s because sleep deprivation messes with your balance and depth perception, dulls reflexes, lowers the focus and slows down reaction times.

You simply can’t shake off the weight

While we’re going to discuss this one in greater details next Saturday, to sum it up: if you snooze, you lose. Which, in terms of weight loss, is a good thing. According to well established science, people who sleep less than six hours a day were 30% more likely to become obese than those who slept the optimal hours. The reasons are manifold: sleep deprivation boosts the hormones that stimulate appetite, suppresses the hormones that signal us to stop eating, creates cravings for high-fat foods, disrupts blood sugar levels, slows down the metabolism and erodes self control. Come back for more on this soon.

You keep coming down with colds

Inadequate sleep can leave you more vulnerable to infections. In one study, researchers injected healthy volunteers with a cold virus. Those who had slept less than 7 hours a night for the previous week were thrice more likely to develop symptoms than those who got 8 hours or more. In another study, people who got only 4 hours of sleep for several nights in a row had a weaker immune response to the flu vaccine than those who slept between 7.5 and 8.5 hours. QED?

You’re short on self control

Added extra helpings of butter on the toast when you normally don’t touch the stuff? Splurged on that expensive top? A lack of sleep may be to blame, since it affects the brain’s prefrontal cortex – the area responsible for impulse control and responsible judgement-making. In short, less sleep equals poor judgement and lack of self control, like buying things you don’t need and gobbling down junk food.

sleepytime saturday 3Your eyes seem to be playing tricks

Lack of sleep makes your eyes feel gritty and achy but that’s not the end of after effects. After pulling an all-nighter, you may find yourself suffering from distorted vision, seeing things that aren’t there or having problems with your peripheral vision. Why does this happen? A sleep deficit lowers the efficiency levels of neutrons that are tasked with creating connections between all parts of the brain, such as the visual cortex. Soon, these neurons stop integrating all the information – think of it as having only 800 pieces of a 1,200 piece jigsaw puzzle. Ultimately, the picture gets distorted and this can create all sorts of problems, such as falls, accidents or kitchen mishaps.

You’re getting forgetful

Keep blanking out on the little nitty gritties of everyday living? Like forgetting your co-workers name? Or your BFFs birthday? Or realising you’ve left the grocery list at home, after you’ve reached the store? Check your sleep patterns. According to the Franklin Institute, deep, restful sleep plays an important role in memory, since it facilitates connections between nerve cells. The upshot: when faced with a task that calls heavily upon having a sharp memory, choose sleep over late-night preparation.

What’s YOUR ideal sleep duration? And how many hours do you actually get?

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