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7 Hours of Sleep: The New Gold Standard?

What constitutes “healthy sleep,” and how much of it do we need each night?

“The amount of sleep required by the average person is five minutes more.”

Kinga Cichewicz/Unsplash
Source: Kinga Cichewicz/Unsplash

Those words—from playwright Wilson Mizener—represent one answer to the conundrum: How much sleep is needed each day for maximum performance and overall good health? Although experts continue to debate the issue of what constitutes “healthy sleep,” increasing research indicates that seven hours—not eight—may be the new gold standard.

Authors of a July 2020 study published online in Diabetologia indicate that seven hours of sleep appear to be a more optimal number for reducing the risk of “all-cause mortality,” particularly in individuals who have diabetes. In fact, they write that diabetic patients who sleep eight hours or more show a higher cancer risk and those who remain in bed 10 hours or more have an increased chance of developing cardiovascular disease.

Their findings are in line with earlier conclusions by scientists at the University of California, San Diego that “the best survival [in the average adult] was found among those who slept seven hours per night” and that those who reported sleeping eight hours or more or six hours or less “experienced a significantly increased mortality hazard.” Other researchers suggest the healthiest duration of sleep may be tied to circadian rhythm—that internal biological clock, which regulates sleep and wake cycles, is associated with one’s genes, and varies in each individual.

But experts do agree that chronically insufficient amounts of sleep are linked to a variety of physical and psychological health problems, including impairments in thinking, judgment, problem-solving, and reasoning; memory deficiencies; depression and mood disorders; neurological diseases, such as Alzheimer’s; obesity; and increased risks of hypertension, cardiovascular disease, stroke—even early death. Lack of sufficient sleep is also a major cause of motor vehicle crashes. Driving drowsy is similar to driving drunk. Meanwhile, a December 2018 article in the journal Sleep notes that a person sleeping, on average, only four hours per night, ages his or her brain by eight years.

What We Know—and Don’t Know—About Sleep

Scientists agree that much remains to be learned about sleep, despite years of research. What is known is that the brain uses sleep to remove metabolic waste from its structures, including the amygdalae, which play an important role in mood, memory, and emotion.

Some experts contend that a good night’s sleep may even serve as a kind of fountain of youth by maintaining a person’s stem cells in a state of dormancy. Reporting in Nature, German scientists say inadequate sleep puts continued stress on hematopoietic stem cells and promotes their premature aging. Keeping these cells at constantly high levels of excitation and activity—like running one marathon after another—can lead to their breakdown and eventual failure to repair DNA damage to cells. Aging occurs as DNA damage builds up in stem cells and impairs their normal ability to maintain healthy tissue.

Maybe the quote attributed to Mesut Barazany is true: “Your future depends on your dreams, so go to sleep.”

Sleep is a Natural Process, But What If You Can’t?

If the optimal hours of sleep are somewhat variable among individuals, perhaps, one should not become overly fixated on putting a number to them. People who adhere to regular sleep schedules, practice good sleep hygiene and awake refreshed are likely getting sufficient hours. Indeed, the determination of sleep sufficiency and quality should be based on its continuity and architecture, as well as on a person’s age, gender, race, culture, and genetics, rather than on a mathematical digit.

Remaining in bed and trying to force sleep just to achieve a certain number of hours may, paradoxically, lead to the development of insomnia, the inability to fall asleep or remain asleep, or the tendency to wake up too early. Although the underlying causes of insomnia are multiple, this disorder can occur—on a psychological basis—when one overthinks the process of falling asleep, worries about staying asleep for a specific amount of time, or becomes increasingly anxious and tense as bedtime nears.

Such stress is counterproductive and inhibits sleep, maintaining a person in a constant fight-or-flight mode. About 30-35 percent of the adult population in the United States experience acute (short-term) episodes of insomnia that, fortunately in most instances, resolve on their own. Another 10 percent, however, suffer from chronic insomnia.

Those percentages may now be higher, thanks to COVID-19. Chinese scientists, writing in Frontiers in Psychiatry in April 2020, report marked increases in generalized anxiety and insomnia among medical staff treating COVID-19 patients during the current epidemic. Other researchers say the same is true among the general population, whose normal routines have been disrupted and who have experienced social isolation, uncertainties, and health and financial fears due to the virus.

And the Answer Is…?

So, what is the answer to better sleep? Experts say, for the most part, it is you. Change your behavior, your perspective of the world, and your place in it; learn to relax; focus on soothing images and memories; establish a greater sense of optimism.

Computer scientist and mathematician Donald Knuth wrote that “the hardest thing is to go to sleep at night, when there are so many urgent things needing to be done.” So, use the daytime hours to get those “urgent things” done and stop mulling them over and over when you lie in bed. Most importantly, you are the best barometer of what constitutes good sleeping; it is a natural process not to be forced. In the words of Donn Posner, founding member of the Society of Behavioral Sleep Medicine, “good sleepers put no effort into sleep whatsoever.”

Of course, should you find yourself, as the movie title suggests, “Sleepless in Seattle,” then there is the standard advice: avoid exercise, alcohol, or big meals just prior to bedtime; establish a regular, daily sleep-wake schedule; keep the bedroom cool; turn down lights; shut off the mobile phone and other electronic gizmos; etc. But if you have done all that and still have trouble falling asleep, here are some additional tips:

  • After about 15 or 20 minutes of sleeplessness, get up, leave the bedroom, and engage in a relaxing activity like reading or listening to soft music until you become sleepy and are ready to return to bed. Lying there just worrying about sleep only promotes insomnia. As Dale Carnegie wrote, “It’s the worry that gets you, not the lack of sleep.”
  • Stop watching the clock and counting the hours until it is time to awake. Take a cloth and cover it. The clock does not care when you fall asleep—and you should not either.
  • If you had a previous night of poor sleep, do not go to bed earlier the next evening to make up for it. You likely will just lie there worried and wondering why you cannot sleep. Stick to your normal schedule.

Finally, remember you are the best solution to a bad night. The power for sleeping well is in you. Learn how to use it.

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