Is 8 hours of sleep a night enough?
When asked the question, ‘how much sleep do you need to get each night’ most of us will answer ‘8 hours.’ This figure is ingrained into most of our minds and it’s the one that’s usually pushed by medical professionals and sleep scientists. Where did this figure come from though? The answer seems to lie in an experiment conducted by Thomas Wehr during the 1980s and 1990s.
This experiment involved plunging the participants into darkness for 14 hours every day for a month. As you would expect, it took a while for their sleep patterns to regulate but, by the last week, the subjects had settled into a routine whereby they slept 4 hours before awakening for 1 or 2 hours and then going back to sleep for another 4 hours.1
This pattern then seemed to have merged with the idea of getting 8 hours of sleep a night, with any period of wakefulness during the night being perceived as an unfortunate sign of insomnia or sleep deprivation. However, by rounding it up to the prescribed ‘8 hours of sleep’ scientists and experts were ignoring a crucial part of Wehr’s findings – that 1-2 hour period of wakefulness.
The idea of having two distinct phases of sleep isn’t just an old idea – it’s a very, very old idea! There are numerous references in writing from the 16th century up to the 19th century that seem to reiterate the idea that, during those times, people used to have a period of wakefulness during the night, which most would use to read books, pray, visit neighbours or even get on with a bit of work.
So what changed?
The industrial revolution, though, changed a lot of things and gradually the idea of segmented sleep started to fade and by the beginning of the 20th century, 8 hours of consecutive sleep was considered the norm.
Segmented sleep or consecutive sleep?
So what’s better for you, the segmented sleep of your ancestors or the consecutive 8 hours that most doctors the recommend these days? The answer isn’t always clear cut as one person’s sleep needs will vary vastly from another’s and can be affected by a number of variables from your diet to your circadian rhythm.
Some experts believe that the wakeful period of relaxation between sleep phases was actually beneficial to our stress levels and that getting fixated upon the notion of ‘8 hours a night’ is, in itself, making people anxious and more prone to sleep disturbances. However, particularly these days, this restful period between sleep phases isn’t as relaxed as it used to be because the first thing most of us would probably do is reach for our mobile phones and other electronic devices.
One thing that is apparent, though, is that anything under 6 hours a night is definitely not enough. Researchers in the UK and Italy verified this in a study2 that found that those who slept for less than 6 hours were 12% more likely to experience a premature death. Sleeping too much wasn’t left out of this equation either – in fact it was found that those who slept for more than 9 hours a night generally had an even higher risk, 30%.
This is why some experts are turning away from the rigid ‘8 hours a night’ to the more flexible 7-9 hours figure.3
What if I do wake up in the middle of the night?
Sleep disturbances are increasingly common and while it might be nice to lie there and contemplate how much in common you have with your 17th century ancestors, it’s more likely you’ll toss and turn, one eye on the alarm clock counting down until you have to get up. In these cases, I think it’s important to take one lesson from our distant relatives – if you do wake up in the middle of the night, make it a restful period.
Instead of rolling around in your bed, don’t be afraid to get up and move to another room. I’d try to keep things nice and dark though – electric LED lighting didn’t exist back in ye olde living room and if you’re trying to keep your body relaxed and in a good state for getting back to sleep, a bright light definitely won’t help.
You could try practicing deep breathing techniques to help calm your body and encourage it to unwind. Resist the temptation to make a start on any household chores and, once you feel able, return to bed to get back to sleep – don’t doze off on the couch!
If you really are struggling with your sleep, it might be time to consider a gentle herbal remedy like our Dormeasan. Prepared using organically cultivated extracts of Valerian and Hops, Dormeasan can help you to achieve a deep, natural sleep without any of next day grogginess associated with traditional sleep medicines. You could try taking some Dormeasan 30 minutes before you go to bed or if you wake up during the night, provided you haven't already had a dose.