There’s no two ways about it: sleep is important. Beside the obvious benefits of giving your energy to get through the workday, it improves memory, spurs creativity, reduces stress, and much more. Like exercise and nutrition, it’s a critical part of being healthy.
While we know sleep is important, few of us get enough. Insufficient sleep is such a problem that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has declared it a public health problem. Sleep deprivation is linked to diabetes, depression, obesity, and even cancer.
But what counts as getting “enough” sleep? The National Sleep Foundation recommends between 7 to 9 hours per night for adults aged 26-64 years old, while acknowledging that in some cases, 6 or 10 hours may be appropriate. Sex, activity level, and even genetics each play a role in determining the amount of sleep that is best for each individual.
Because research can’t pinpoint any specific amount that will work for everyone, that’s a pretty big range. Fortunately, there are techniques you can use to find the amount of sleep you need to thrive. Here are four tips.
Keep a Sleep Diary
Keeping a sleep diary can help you find habits and trends in your sleep patterns. How do you feel after six hours of sleep? After nine? When do you reach for an extra cup of coffee to get you through the afternoon? What impact does alcohol have on your sleep?
A sleep diary takes only a few minutes each day to complete, but can make a world of difference in revealing patterns that show how much sleep you need.
This sleep diary from the National Sleep Foundation lets you track your sleep for seven days and is an excellent place to start. WebMD also has a simple template you can use. Find one that works for you and stick with it for at least a week.
Use Apps to Improve Your Sleep
There are many sleep tracking tools and smartphone apps that monitor your sleep cycle and report back to you on ways to make improvements. As one example, Sleep Cycle tracks your sleep and wakes you when you are gently dozing, rather than when you are deeply asleep. Many fitness trackers also will monitor how long and how well you sleep, and then wirelessly syncs this information to computers and smartphones.
With an app like Sleep Cycle or any of the many others there are, you can monitor your sleep to figure out how much sleep you need – and also make changes to your habits and sleep environment that will help you get better sleep.
Take an Alarm-Free Week to Figure Out Your Sleep Needs
Few of us know how much sleep we need because we haven’t had the chance to let ourselves go to sleep and wake at times that are natural to us. For many people, the last time that happened was probably Saturday mornings when we were teenagers, but our sleep needs have changed since then.
Get back in touch with your natural sleep cycle. The next time you have a seven-day break from work or school, where you aren’t bound to an alarm clock, try these two doctor-approved steps to figuring out how much sleep you need.
1. Try to go to sleep at the same time every night. Turn off your alarm – the whole point of this exercise is to see when you wake up naturally, without an alarm. Note what time you wake up in the morning.
2. Manually or using an app like Sleep Cycle, calculate how much you sleep on nights 4, 5, and 6 (disregard the first three nights as you’re likely catching up from the week before). Add them together. Take this total and divide by 3.
That’s it. This number is the amount of sleep you need on a nightly basis, rather than a vague range. When you’re back to your normal daily life, count back from when you need to get up in the morning to determine when you should be going to bed.
Consider When You Need to Sleep
Just as most adults need 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night, most adults prefer these hours to fall between 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.
But there are exceptions. The science of chronobiology shows there are many people who do not naturally fall into this pattern, preferring either to sleep earlier or later.
If you struggle to get to bed before 3 a.m. and wake before 10 a.m., pause to consider if this is because of poor sleep habits or because of the way you are wired. If it’s the latter, it may not be possible to entirely re-orient your life to suit your circadian system, but you may be able to make small changes.
Perhaps you can negotiate with your boss to start and end your workday half an hour later, or shift it an hour earlier if that better suits your sleep pattern. Maybe your partner can take on breakfast-making responsibilities in the morning. Make changes that will suit your internal clock.
Remember, finding the amount of sleep you need requires listening to what your body is telling you. To determine how much sleep you need, keep a sleep diary, use apps to improve your sleep, or take an alarm-free week to figure out your sleep needs, and then consider what hours of the night you get your best sleep. These four techniques will help you find out how much sleep you need and when you need it.
It’s not impossible to determine how much sleep you need. All it takes is a little bit of effort to track your sleep patterns and listen to your body. Before you know it, you’ll be getting the sleep you need to feel rested and invigorated, and you’ll be healthier and happier for it.