Sure, you’re eating your vegetables and fruits and squeezing in exercise at least 20 minutes a day, but are you getting enough sleep, too? The National Sleep Foundation’s latest sleep recommendations, published March 2015 in the journal Sleep Health, may make you want to think twice about skimping on essential shut-eye. Sleep is key to your physical health and emotional vitality, but just how many hours of sleep you need depends on your age and stage of development.
“Sleep is important for mental function: alertness, memory consolidation, mood regulation, and physical health,” says Phyllis C. Zee, MD, PhD, professor of neurology and director of the Sleep Disorders Center at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.
Too few hours of sleep or poor sleep could pave the way to a myriad of emotional and physical problems, from diabetes to obesity, explains Dr. Zee. “In fact, data shows that with sleep loss, there are changes in the way the body handles glucose, which could lead to a state of insulin resistance (prediabetes),” says Zee. “There is also evidence that lack of sleep alters appetite regulation, which may lead to overeating or food choices that can also contribute to obesity or being overweight.”
Your Sleep Needs Will Change Over the Years
How much sleep you need to stay healthy, alert, and active depends on your age and varies from person to person. Most adults need at least seven or more hours of sleep each night.
The National Sleep Foundation (NSF) and a panel of 18 experts combed through more than 300 studies to identify the ideal amount of time a person needs to sleep according to their age:
- Newborns (0 to 3 months): 14 to 17 hours of sleep
- Infants (4 to 11 months): 12 to 15 hours of sleep
- Toddlers (1 to 2 years): 11 to 14 hours of sleep
- Preschoolers (3 to 5 years): 10 to 13 hours of sleep
- School-aged children (6 to 13 years): 9 to 11 hours of sleep
- Teenagers (14 to 17 years): 8 to 10 hours of sleep
- Young adults (18 to 25 years): 7 to 9 hours of sleep
- Adults (26 to 64 years): 7 to 9 hours of sleep
- Older adults (65 years or older): 7 to 8 hours of sleep
Gender Tends to Affect Our Sleep Patterns
Although most men and women need about 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night, their sleep patterns are generally different. Women often sleep more than men, and they experience a lighter sleep that is more easily disrupted. Many women also have undiagnosed sleep disorders.
Problems that can disrupt women’s sleep include depression, major life events (such as divorce), pregnancy, hormonal changes related to menopause, sleep disorders — including obstructive sleep apnea and restless legs syndrome — and medical problems like arthritis, back pain, and fibromyalgia.
Both women and men often lose sleep over job-related stress, according to research.
Additional stressors that cause men to lose sleep include life issues regarding marriage or divorce, children, employment, and money. Other causes include sleep disorders, substance abuse, depression, and medical problems like epilepsy and heart disease. Men are also more inclined than women to take sleep for granted and stay up longer than they should.
Snoring is another factor that may prevent you from getting the z’s you need. Nearly 90 million of us snore to some degree at night, according to the NSF, and the reasons behind it may also be related to gender. Men often have air passages that are narrower than women’s, which results in more night noise as the breath is forced through a smaller opening.
Men also tend to drink more alcohol and may imbibe to excess more often than their female counterparts, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Because alcohol can relax the muscles in the airway and throat, more snoring — and less sleep for bedmates — are frequent results.
Both women and men can improve their nighttime rest quality by adopting a few best practices. These include adhering to the same wake and sleep schedule every day, powering down electronics at least an hour before bed, keeping the room you snooze in on the cool side (between 60 and 67 degrees is ideal, according to the NSF), and sticking to a relaxing routine before bed, such as a warm bath, having a light snack, and reading quietly before tucking in.
If you believe you need professional advice about your lack of sleep, it’s a good idea to maintain a sleep diary for about a week. This will help your doctor get an accurate picture of your sleep history. Your doctor might recommend a device to keep your air passageways open, or a weight loss plan, based on your individual symptoms and needs.
Written by: Clare Kittredge
Medically Reviewed by: Sanjai Sinha, MD