We’ve all been there before: You promise yourself just a few more minutes—and suddenly, it’s 2 a.m. and you’re still wide awake. Perhaps you’re binging a new favorite Netflix series or fretting over a morning meeting— whatever the root cause, you’re tossing and turning in bed all night, instead of getting the shut-eye you so desperately need.
What most of us don’t understand, however, is what really happens to our bodies when we don’t achieve that optimal level of sleep, which for most adults clocks in between seven and eight hours. Ahead, we asked a few doctors to explain how are bodies react to too-little sleep—and their answers might surprise you.
It becomes more difficult to focus on mental and physical tasks.
According to Dr. Jan K. Carney, MD, MPH, the Associate Dean for Public Health & Health Policy, and Professor of Medicine at Larner College of Medicine at the University of Vermont and the National Institutes of Health, sleep is essential for health at every age. “When we don’t get enough sleep, it is harder to stay alert, focus on school or work, and react quickly when driving,” Dr. Carney says.
Your memory and mood suffers—and your appetite increases.
Sleep physician Dr. Abhinav Singh, MD, FAASM, the Medical Director of the Indiana Sleep Center, and Sleep Foundation Medical Review Panel member, says that, believe it or not, losing precious hours of sleep and drinking excessive amounts of alcohol have similar physical consequences. “Sleep loss is linked to memory impairment, poor mood, increased appetite (think obesity and diabetes), and reduced reflexes,” he says. “Increased reaction time and some studies have compared it to being worse than being intoxicated with alcohol.”
Long-term sleep shortage could lead to chronic physical and mental health concerns.
While Dr. Carney says the short-term risks of sleep loss are things we’re all familiar with—feeling drowsy and having trouble concentrating—the real risk is what a compounded lack of sleep can do over time. “Longer-term sleep shortage is associated with increased risks for chronic health conditions such as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, stroke, and depression.”
You can’t make up for lost sleep.
Unfortunately, you can’t “catch up” on sleep—once those hours are gone, they’re gone for good. “It is best to develop and keep regular sleep habits over the long term,” shares Dr. Carney, adding that you also can’t “learn to live” with less sleep. “The best way to ensure both adequate sleep and high-quality sleep is to develop good sleep habits.”
This means implementing a routine with a consistent bedtime and wake time each day—even on weekends. “Regular exercise helps, as does avoiding caffeine or alcohol near bedtime,” Carney says. “Our environment is essential—we need a calm, quiet, dark, and cool location where we sleep regularly.”
How Much Sleep Do You Need?
These guidelines serve as a rule-of-thumb for how much sleep children and adults need while acknowledging that the ideal amount of sleep can vary from person to person.
For that reason, the guidelines list a range of hours for each age group. The recommendations also acknowledge that, for some people with unique circumstances, there’s some wiggle room on either side of the range for “acceptable,” though still not optimal, amount of sleep.
Deciding how much sleep you need means considering your overall health, daily activities, and typical sleep patterns. Some questions that you help assess your individual sleep needs include:
- Are you productive, healthy, and happy on seven hours of sleep? Or have you noticed that you require more hours of sleep to get into high gear?
- Do you have coexisting health issues? Are you at higher risk for any disease?
- Do you have a high level of daily energy expenditure? Do you frequently play sports or work in a labor-intensive job?
- Do your daily activities require alertness to do them safely? Do you drive every day and/or operate heavy machinery? Do you ever feel sleepy when doing these activities?
- Are you experiencing or do you have a history of sleeping problems?
- Do you depend on caffeine to get you through the day?
- When you have an open schedule, do you sleep more than you do on a typical workday?
Start with the above-mentioned recommendations and then use your answers to these questions to home in on your optimal amount of sleep.
How Were the Recommendations Created?
To create these recommended sleep times, an expert panel of 18 people was convened from different fields of science and medicine. The members of the panel reviewed hundreds of validated research studies about sleep duration and key health outcomes like cardiovascular disease, depression, pain, and diabetes.
After studying the evidence, the panel used several rounds of voting and discussion to narrow down the ranges for the amount of sleep needed at different ages. In total, this process took over nine months to complete.
Other organizations, such as the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) and Sleep Research Society (SRS) have also published recommendations for the amount of sleep needed for adults2 and children3. In general, these organizations closely coincide in their findings as do similar organizations in Canada.4
Improve Your Sleep Today: Make Sleep a Priority
Once you have a nightly goal based on the hours of sleep that you need, it’s time to start planning for how to make that a reality.
Start by making sleep a priority in your schedule. This means budgeting for the hours you need so that work or social activities don’t trade off with sleep. While cutting sleep short may be tempting in the moment, it doesn’t pay off because sleep is essential to being at your best both mentally and physically.
Improving your sleep hygiene, which includes your bedroom setting and sleep-related habits, is an established way to get better rest. Examples of sleep hygiene improvements include:
- Sticking to the same sleep schedule every day, even on weekends.
- Practicing a relaxing pre-bed routine to make it easier to fall asleep quickly.
- Choosing the best mattress that is supportive and comfortable, and outfitting it with the best pillows and bedding.
- Minimizing potential disruptions from light and sound while optimizing your bedroom temperature and aroma.
- Disconnecting from electronic devices like mobile phones and laptops for a half-hour or more before bed.
- Carefully monitoring your intake of caffeine and alcohol and trying to avoid consuming them in the hours before bed.
If you’re a parent, many of the same tips apply to help children and teens get the recommended amount of sleep that they need for kids their age. Pointers for parents can help with teens, specifically, who face a number of unique sleep challenges.
Getting more sleep is a key part of the equation, but remember that it’s not just about sleep quantity. Quality sleep matters5, too, and it’s possible to get the hours that you need but not
feel refreshed because your sleep is fragmented or non-restorative. Fortunately, improving sleep hygiene often boosts both the quantity and quality of your sleep.
If you or a family member are experiencing symptoms such as significant sleepiness during the day, chronic snoring, leg cramps or tingling, difficulty breathing during sleep, chronic insomnia, or another symptom that is preventing you from sleeping well, you should consult your primary care doctor or find a sleep professional to determine the underlying cause.
You can try using our Sleep Diary or Sleep Log to track your sleep habits. This can provide insight about your sleep patterns and needs. It can also be helpful to bring with you to the doctor if you have ongoing sleep problems.
By: Eric Suni – SleepFoundation
- “Broadband internet causes sleep deprivation, a new study finds”.
- The effect of smartphone usage at bedtime on sleep quality among Saudi non- medical staff at King Saud University Medical City”
- The human emotional brain without sleep- a prefrontal amygdala disconnect”.
- Neural basis of alertness and cognitive performance impairments during sleepiness. I. Effects of 24 h of sleep deprivation on waking human regional brain activity”
- Effects of Chronic Sleep Restriction on the Brain Functional Network, as Revealed by Graph Theory”.
- Why We Sleep”
- No sleep means no new brain cells
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