Woman lying awake in bed

Sleep, Sleep Medicine and Stress: How do you know how much sleep you really need? Part 2

by James Porter February 20, 2021

This is the second of a six-part series on stress and sleep. If you’ve had difficulty sleeping during the pandemic, you are not alone. Insomnia was already reaching epidemic proportions BEFORE Covid. Now it’s gotten worse. According to a survey published in Consumer Reports 28% of Americans reported having trouble falling or staying asleep since the Pandemic hit. (Click here to read the first installment of the series.)

How do you know how much sleep you really need?

After 9/11 I didn’t get on a plane for about 5 years. I was driving everywhere I had to go, no matter how long a drive it was. I drove from my home in Connecticut to Florida, Wisconsin and South Carolina.  (Ranging in drive time from 12 to 20 hours one way.) What eventually got me back on a plane was not the boredom of all these long road trips; It was the fact that I was starting to doze off while driving. And that is how you truly know whether you are getting enough sleep: It’s NOT dependent on how much you sleep but on how well you function the next day.

In his book “The Promise of Sleep,” Dr. William Dement tells how he met a woman who claimed to get by on 70 minutes of sleep a night. She worked two jobs and Dement met up with her at night to see how well she was functioning and apparently, from what he could surmise, she was doing just fine. That’s when Dement, who started the very first Sleep Disorder Center at Stanford University, and studied sleep his entire career, realized the only way to truly tell how much sleep a person really needs is to assess it by their level of functioning the next day.

Dement called these exceptional people “short sleepers.” If you sleep four hours a night and don’t need a caffeine assist to get going in the morning or to keep you going in the afternoon and you don’t fall asleep in your chair watching the 7 O’clock News, you may be one of these rare short sleepers, too.

I thought I was a short sleeper. But I flunked the test below quite badly. And when my head would bob while I was driving long distances, that’s when I realized that I’d be far safer up in the air (with someone else driving) than on the ground trying to drive myself.

The research tells us that one of the biggest problems with people who are constantly sleep deprived (particularly with those who have undiagnosed sleep disorders) are accidents: car accidents and industrial accidents. According to the National Sleep Foundation sleepy drivers cause 1550 highway deaths, 71,000 injuries and billions of dollars in damages on the road. Industrial accidents also (particularly long-distance truck drivers) do billions of dollars in damages every year too. 

But our sleep needs change throughout our lifetimes. A baby sleeps about 16 hours in one 24 hour period. (So does a cat.) A young child about 10. Teenagers need at least 8 to 10, adults 7 to 8 and seniors seem to sleep less, but most experts suggest that even seniors – for maintaining optimal health – stick to the 7 to 8-hour recommendation. But these are just broad generalizations.

One of the reasons 8 hours a night became a national standard long ago, was the result of a study conducted by Navy psychologists, where a dozen sailors were confined to a completely dark room for 24 hours a day for 3 whole weeks! (You probably couldn’t even do that kind of study today.) After catching up on sleep the first few days, they consistently slept 8 hours per 24-hour time period after that. And so the 8-hour per night recommendation became the standard.

Dr. Reuben Naiman, who I worked with on The Nature of Sleep uncovered a lot of evidence that suggested that before the industrial revolution (and electric lights) people slept a LOT more. Perhaps as much as 9-10 hours a night. He found evidence to suggest that people awakened in the middle of the night but also napped in the afternoon. They had a name for the period in the middle of the night: “night-watch.” Author Roger Ekirch, in his book about the history of sleep habits, “At Days Close, Night in Times Past” writes that before 1900 people slept in two five hour phases (“first sleep and second sleep”) with an hour of wakefulness in between.

 Dr. Naiman suggested to me that our 21rst century middle of the night wakefulness, may be a remnant of our pre-industrial age sleep habits. He said that sleep back before electric lights was like a yin yang symbol.

Yin Yang 

Daytime (the white part of the circle) is mostly wakefulness but includes a short nap. (represented by the black dot.) Nighttime, (the dark side) is mostly sleep with a short period of wakefulness.

So, there’s really no conclusive evidence that proves how much sleep we need a night and it’s all up to how well you function the next day on whatever sleep you get the night before. BUT, if you are like me and think you are a short sleeper, be sure to take the following test: The Epworth Sleepiness Scale. I flunked it miserably. So apparently, I’m not a short sleeper. 

In the next installment we’ll talk about the potential problems with sleep medications.




James Porter
James Porter

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