How Much Sleep Is Enough?

by | Healthy Living, Sleep

Eight hours good, six hours bad? It’s not just down to numbers, says the ABC’s Dr Norman Swan, who prescribes a fresh focus on sleep quality over quantity for life enhancing rest.

Tracking your sleep data nightly and relying on weekends to pay off your sleep debt are probably not helping you a lot, claims Dr Swan who researched the importance of sleep in depth in his latest book So You Want to Live Younger Longer It’s about rethinking your sleep strategy and refocussing your expectations so you wake up more refreshed tomorrow.

 “The best sleep therapy doesn’t often change your sleep duration. What it does do is give you a better night’s sleep,” Dr Swan explains.

How much sleep do I need?

Between seven to eight hours is widely recommended internationally but what matters most is if you are getting unbroken, high quality sleep which allows you to feel refreshed and  functioning well the next day. As they say in the clothes trade, never mind the length, feel the quality. 

But if it’s been months since you’ve woken up refreshed and ready to smash that to do list, you could be experiencing insomnia – and that’s a genuine medical issue that needs addressing.

Insomnia, Dr Swan says, “is defined by trouble falling asleep or trouble staying asleep at night for at least three months and interferes with your ability to function normally during the day, leaving you feeling irritable and unable to concentrate.” 

There are plenty of reasons you may not be sleeping well and drilling down into what’s going on can help you decide what to do about it. 

“Poor sleep quality generally means feeling unrefreshed and tired in the morning and maybe having an interrupted night’s sleep,” Dr Swan says. “Jobs, mental health issues, traffic noise, drug and alcohol intake and poor sleep hygiene can all play a role. Your age, work, health and fitness, whether you have young kids, and your gender (men sleep less than women) all affect how much sleep you have and whether it’s good quality.” 

So if you’re freaking out ahead of next week’s performance review or you’re a new parent, it’s to be expected your sleep quality is going to be less than ideal for a while (sorry about that). But if you do have the opportunity to sleep well and it’s still not happening, those struggles can sometimes be an early warning sign of mental health issues.

“Disrupted sleep patterns are common in people with depression and anxiety,” Dr Swan says. “Anxiety can prevent you from falling asleep in the first place, while waking up in the middle of the night and ruminating on negative thoughts may be a sign of depression. It can work the other way as well.  Poor sleep can affect your mental health significantly.”

Seeing your GP and explaining any changes to your sleep can help in creating a mental health care plan that includes lifestyle changes, therapy and in some cases, appropriate medication, if required. 

How can I stop worrying about sleep?

Like most tricky life matters, there’s a specific type of therapy for improving your approach to sleep. It’s called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) and it aims to break negative habits to bring about positive behaviour change.   

“Just like the CBT used for other problems like depression, CBT-I is about changing thoughts which are counterproductive to a good night’s sleep,” Dr Swan says. “It helps people stop catastrophising in the middle of the night about their lack of sleep.”

CBT-I teaches you to notice unhelpful thoughts and feelings about sleep, examine them and counteract the negativity with practical, positive behaviours. It’s powerful stuff because this kind of therapy can be done online or in-person and the tools you develop can last a lifetime – you just have to practice using them.

Do late dinners and workouts make it hard to sleep? 

Science says yes, eating or exercising late can disrupt the circadian rhythm that controls your natural sleep-wake cycles. Even if it means meal prepping for dinner al desko before you clock off, it’s worth eating before 7pm so your body won’t be busy digesting your dinner just as you’re trying to drift off at 11pm.

“A delay in mealtimes, particularly dinner, might add to your circadian misalignment because if you eat late it can make it harder to go to sleep,” Dr Swan says. “Eating a big meal close to our natural ‘rest phase’ can throw out our internal rhythms and can be linked to obesity and other metabolic problems.”

Likewise, late-night, vigorous exercise can make it impossible to wind down when you finally do get into bed. With all that extra adrenaline pumping after a hectic 9pm game of futsal, your body is primed to do anything but rest. So switch to an earlier league or save the competition for Saturdays. Yin and hatha yoga are ideal for managing midweek stress and getting you moving in more gentle, restful ways that promote quality sleep.   

Does sleeping less help with sleeping better?

It might sound counter-intuitive but less can be more with maximising your sleep. It starts by staying up until you’re genuinely tired and only going to bed then. 

“Sleep restriction therapy is a strict method of setting a fixed wake-up time in the morning and finding a time to go to bed when you’re tired enough that you sleep right through to that set waketime,” Dr Swan says. 

If you know you’re better off going to bed at 11.30pm than 10.30pm because you only spend that first hour thrashing around worrying, stay up an extra hour. Then, once you’ve set your alarm, put your phone on the other side of the room so you’re not tempted to read in bed or hit snooze in the morning.

Think of this strategy as baby sleep training for adults. Like any training, it takes discipline but it’s proven to work so give it a try. However it may be easier if you do with the aid of someone who has expertise in sleep therapy.

“Sleep quality and duration are more influenced by the time you go to bed than the time you get up,” Dr Swan says. “Waketimes don’t change that much during life while bedtimes do, which is why sleep therapy tends to focus on what time you got to bed the night before.”

Why don’t sleeping pills work? 

Deadlines, client demands and money worries are real but learning how to self-manage your sleep means saving yourself from the classic morning-after grogginess sleeping tablets are notorious for.

“Drugs are rarely the way to treat sleep quality,” Dr Swan says. “They don’t give you a normal night’s sleep, have side effects and some can cause dependence. Sometimes a sleeping pill can break the cycle but that’s really all.”

Getting a good night’s sleep starts hours before bed. While it goes without saying espresso after 3pm is not your friend, alcohol – commonly regarded as a depressant – can also act as a stimulant, playing havoc with your sleep quality. 

“That glass of wine or three might be keeping you awake or could be waking you up early,” Dr Norman cautions. 

Put this theory to the test by seeing how much better you sleep after an alcohol free day (AFD) and if it turns out to be true for you, squeeze a few more AFDs into your week.

As with all things sleep related, optimising the quality of your sleep is about finding out what works for you and putting those strategies in place to give yourself the best chance of waking up on top of the world. 

“Fixing your sleep may or may not make you live longer, but you’ll certainly live a lot better,” Dr Swan says.

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