It’s no longer cool to brag about how little you sleep you get a night.
The cult of busy may be real, but we’re tempering it with the knowledge that we need to get enough quality sleep to function.
On the latest episode of Healthy-ish ‘When did sleep become our biggest obsession’, co-hosts Maz Compton and Dr Sam Hay talk to sleep scientist Dr Carmel Harrington about the healing power of shut-eye.
Dr Harrington is a sleep therapist and author of two books on the subject; The Sleep Diet andThe Complete Guide To A Good Night’s Sleep.
She says there’s no hard and fast rule about how much sleep is necessary.
“It’s individual,” she says.
“The population studies show somewhere between seven to nine hours is the average. I know I need about eight and a half hours, but my husband only needs about seven and a half.”
A very small amount of the population can function on four or five hours a night, but the problem is that a larger proportion thinks they fit into that category.
“Only about two per cent of the population have a short sleep gene and about two per cent have a long sleep gene, so they need more than nine hours,” she says.
And it’s easy to tell whether or not you’re getting enough.
“If you’re getting the right amount of sleep, you actually feel great when you wake up in the morning and you’re able to meet the joys and the challenges of every day,” she says.
“We often meet our challenges because they are the things that we have to do, but are you meeting your joy?
“Because if you’ve had a hard week and come home from work, and your partner says, ‘I’ve organised dinner and the movies’ and your heart sinks and you go, ‘Oh no, all I want is a good night’s sleep’, it probably tends to mean that you’re not getting the sleep that you need.”
Genetics dictate how much sleep we need plus whether or not we’re morning people.
“If your parents loved to get up at 6am and they loved the sunrise, chances are that you’re a morning person or a lark,” Dr Harrington says.
But if you’re a night owl that aspires to become a morning person, rest assured that it is possible. It’s all to do with our sleep rhythms.
“The way we change how we sleep at night is the time that we get up in the morning,” Dr Harrington says.
“It’s when we get up that we stop producing our master hormone called melatonin, and when we stop producing that we set up our circadian rhythms or our biological functions for the next 24 hours.
“So when you wake up at 6am and expose yourself to bright sunlight, you’re ready to go back to sleep about 16 hours later.”
Sleep happens in cycles and there are four main types; slow wave sleep, light sleep, deep sleep and dream sleep.
“Now whether you feel rested or not when you wake up is often a result of what sleep stage you wake from,” Dr Harrington says.
“So if you wake from light sleep you’re pretty well ready to go, and a lot of our sleep apps work on that basis.”
Dr Harrington is also a fan of the power nap but says “there’s a little secret to it.”
“Keep it to 20 minutes. A sleep cycle is between 90-110 minutes but what you run the risk of at 45 minutes is going from light sleep to deep sleep,” she says.
“If you wake up from your deep sleep you get something called sleep inertia and that’s when you feel foggy and disorientated.
“Importantly if you don’t go to sleep in that 20 minutes it means you’re not tired enough to go to sleep so don’t worry about it. Even if you sleep for five minutes it actually does the job it needs to do.”
And the best time to nap? Usually when we reach for that afternoon pick-me-up.
“The alertness dip (happens) at about three o’clock in the afternoon and (after your nap) you’ll feel great for next few hours,” Dr Harrington says.
So swap that coffee for a nap. Doctor’s orders.
Want to hear more about the benefits of sleep? Tune into episode 54 of Healthy-ish, ‘When did sleep become our biggest obsession?’ Listen above, at Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts from.