Optimize your sleep so it delivers exactly what you need.

With sleep deprivation emerging as a popular topic in the last few years, I can’t help but wonder whether my party and late-night studying days actually doomed me for all eternity.

Is it possible to catch up on the Zzz’s now that I’m an adult?

Speaking of catching up, how much am I supposed to catch up on?

Can it be done in 1 month, or do I need to spread it out over the course of a year (or, God forbid, more)?

How much sleep is actually enough, and does it differ from person to person?

There are a million questions in my head, so I took a look at the research.

Sleep deprivation is a common problem, affecting more than a third of American adults.

Science has proven many negative long-term effects of prolonged sleep deprivation on overall health and well-being, from memory issues and mood changes to high blood pressure and a weakened immune system.

Being sleep-deprived simply means you’re getting less sleep (or less quality sleep) than your body requires, not allowing it to do the hard work of recharging, refueling, and repairing.

You might think that 8 hours is enough. But how do you feel the following day? Struggling to wake up in the morning until you drink your third cup of coffee may be a sign of sleep deprivation.

Sleep is a basic human need. Getting what you need means you can function at your best.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, the general recommended amount for adults is 7 to 9 hours of quality sleep per night.

During that time, your body goes through five different stages of sleep:

  1. drowsiness
  2. light sleep
  3. moderate to deep sleep
  4. deepest sleep
  5. dreaming, with REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM rotated

The first two phases are the lightest sleep. They’re preparing your body for deeper sleep and rest by lowering your body’s temperature and decreasing your brain wave action.

Phases three and four are deeper sleep, when your body is working hard to repair and heal. Your brain releases important hormones to optimize all bodily functions.

During phase five, dreaming and REM take place.

When it comes to the question of how much sleep is enough, all sleep phases need to be taken into account. Every person spends different amounts of time in each one.

So, how do you figure out how much you need?

One study explored the connection between specific personality traits and sleep quality. It turns out that your personality may hold clues to your sleep.

According to the research, extroverts and those with a lower tendency to experience distress and negative emotions had overall better sleep quality. Introverts and those who struggled with self-discipline and organization had more sleep challenges.

Learning more about your patterns can also help you decipher why you might be having trouble opening your eyes in the morning or feeling that midday crash.

Here are a few easy ways to do just that.

Get to know your rhythm

The easiest way to listen to your body’s sleep rhythm is through self-observation. Keep a notebook near your bed and jot down answers to questions like:

  • How are you feeling when you climb under the covers? Wiped out or wide awake?
  • How about your body? Are you sore and achy, or relaxed and loose?
  • What time was your last meal?
  • What time are you climbing into bed?

Do the same when you wake up:

  • What do you remember about your sleep quality?
  • Did you fall asleep easily, or did you toss and turn?
  • Was your mind racing?
  • Did you wake up often?
  • Did you dream? If you did, what type of dreams did you have?
  • What woke you up? Did you feel groggy or refreshed?

Answering these questions consistently several days in a row will give you more clarity into your sleep patterns.

Calculate your sleep

Calculating how much you actually sleep each night, and how much time you spent in each sleep stage, can help you get more insight into what’s going on when you shut your eyes.

The important details to note when calculating your sleep include:

  • your wakeup time
  • whether you were able to complete five to six sleep cycles, or whether they were interrupted (each take about 90 minutes)
  • the time you fall asleep, and how long that takes from the moment you get in bed

If you complete all five to six sleep cycles, it would take you about 7.5 to 9 hours of sleep.

If you sleep less than that, it probably means you woke up in the middle of one of your cycles.

Get high-tech

Wearable technology makes tracking your sleep a cinch, with gadgets picking up on your heart rate variability, activity levels, and even how much time you’re spending in each sleep phase.

Check out trackers like the Oura Ring, which tracks key signals from your body while you sleep, or Whoop, which is designed to track sleep for peak performance.

Although not as accurate, even an Apple Watch and Fitbit can tell you about your sleep.

Use a sleep sensor

Sleep sensor mats are another option for tracking sleep.

Brands like Withings can help you assess your sleep quality and make small enhancements, like dimming the lights before you go to sleep, or programming the thermostat to the optimal morning temperature.

It’s all neatly displayed in their Health Mate app, where you can check your sleep score and work toward improving it.

Another option is Luna. It’s a sleep mat that tracks your heart and breathing rate and changes the temperature of your bed to coincide with bedtime. It also communicates with other devices, like activity trackers and alarm clocks.

What does your energy tell you?

If your data looks good but you still wake up feeling tired, it might be time to talk to a professional. Your doctor can administer the appropriate tests to rule out any serious issues and help get your sleep back on track.

Many underestimate the importance of sleep and live by the “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” rule. Experts disagree with this philosophy.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, sleep needs differ by age:

  • Babies up to 12 months: 14 to 17 hours
  • Children up to 5 years: 10 to 14 hours
  • Children up to 12 years: 9 to 11 hours
  • Teens: 8 to 10 hours
  • Adults: 7 to 9 hours
  • Older adults: 7 to 8 hours

Of course, these are broad guidelines. Sleep needs vary for everyone based on health, lifestyle, and other factors.

Healthline

In addition to age and personality, specific medical conditions may affect your sleep duration and needs.

Depression and anxiety

If you’re dealing with depression, it may affect your sleep. Depression has been linked to sleep issues such as:

These sleep problems can also increase the risk of depression.

Anxiety, on the other hand, is mostly connected to an absence of sleep. A nervous state can prevent the body from entering the “rest and digest” mode that’s essential for repair and rejuvenation.

In both of these cases, getting adequate amounts of sleep and regulating your sleeping habits can improve mental health.

Try this

Try a calming meditation to help relax your nervous system and soothe yourself to sleep. There are also techniques specifically designed to help you fall asleep quickly.

Cardiovascular issues

Heart problems are also linked to poor sleep.

Sleeping helps the heart relax and protects the arteries from hardening, a process known as atherosclerosis. The length of sleep has also been found to be a predictor of cardiovascular health.

Try this

Lifestyle factors can affect both your sleep and heart health. Try adjusting the timing of exercise, food, caffeine, and alcohol intake to help you sleep more soundly.

Chronic pain conditions

People who have chronic pain conditions often report issues with insomnia and difficulties staying asleep. In turn, sleep disruptions can make pain worse.

Breaking the cycle of disrupted sleep is important for the body to repair and heal.

Try this

If your pain keeps you up, try a progressive muscle relaxation technique, or discuss a magnesium supplement with your doctor.

According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, cognitive behavioral therapy is an effective method to overcome insomnia.

If you still can’t sleep after making modifications like those above, it may be time to talk to a sleep expert.

The amount of sleep you need during the night varies from person to person, but for most adults the ideal number is between 7 and 9 hours.

With so many processes in the human body connected to sleep, it’s easy to see why calling it an early night can reap long-term health rewards.

With some simple sleep tweaks, sleep tech, or both, you can optimize your sleep so it delivers exactly what you need.


Karla Ilicic is a freelance health and wellness writer, nutritionist, and yoga teacher with a strong passion for storytelling, delving into interesting research, and exploring the world we live in. She is also a travel enthusiast, food lover, and fitness aficionado. She lives in Seattle with her husband.