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The importance of sleep: are you really getting enough?

April 22, 2019 • read

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The importance of sleep: are you really getting enough?

We all know about the importance of sleep. It helps us to grow, make memories and rest our bodies, and it’s something each one of us needs. Even though we all know how crucial sleep is to our mental health and wellbeing, almost half of Canadians between 18 and 64 report having trouble with both falling asleep and staying asleep. Read on to learn what happens when we sleep, and how much you should actually be getting.

How much sleep do I need for my age?

Our sleep needs vary greatly over the course of our lives. As newborns, we spend the majority of our days asleep, but as seniors, we might find that we need as little as five or six hours a night. The reasons why have to do with where we are developmentally — more on this below. Not only do the amounts change as we age, but so do the reasons why we need sleep. Interestingly, Statistics Canada reports that we sleep one full hour less as a country than we did as recently as 2005. This feeds into many theories suggesting that increased screen time has had a negative effect on our sleep.

Experts say the easiest way to figure out the optimum number of hours for you is to pay attention to how you feel when you wake up. Both oversleeping and undersleeping can leave you feeling tired and groggy, while sleeping the right amount should result in feeling refreshed and alert. Check out our handy sleep chart by age below, to figure out your optimum range.

Sleep chart by age*

Age Recommended
Newborns: 0-3 months 14 to 17 hours
Infants: 4-11 months 12 to 15 hours
Toddlers: 1-2 years 11 to 14 hours
Preschoolers: 3-5 years 10 to 13 hours
School-aged children: 6-13 years 9 to 11 hours
Teenagers: 14-17 years 8 to 10 hours
Young adults: 18-25 years 7 to 9 hours
Adults: 26-64 years 7 to 9 hours
Adults: 65 and up 7 to 8 hours

Why do we sleep at night?

There are many reasons why sleep is important for the brain. According to sleep therapist Aaron Arkin, sleep is just as important to our health as eating well and exercising. Says Arkin: “The brain is very active while we sleep. It undertakes all sorts of processes it can’t do during the day when we’re awake and alert and need to focus on actions. When our body is in a state of sleep, it can go through processes such as learning, consolidating memory and regenerating our tissues.

“If you’re an infant or adolescent, your brain is learning, and growing connections while you sleep. Not just facts and people’s names, but how to interact with the world. One thing we see with teenagers is that they get a lot of increased deep sleep — in the literature, it’s called slow-wave sleep. And that’s important for bone growth and hormone secretion. Older adults tell us that they don’t sleep deeply or as much as they used to. They’re not growing the same way as when they were teenagers, so they don’t need as much of that particular type of sleep.”

What is good sleep?

While the amount we need varies over our lifetime, a good night’s sleep has to do with more than just the total number of hours you spend asleep. Anyone with a newborn can tell you that waking up multiple times a night doesn’t leave you well rested, no matter how many hours you manage to stay in bed for. The National Sleep Foundation has outlined certain guidelines when it comes to defining a good sleep, and while basic, they make sense. According to them, you should be asleep within 30 minutes of going to bed and awakening no more than once a night. And once you’ve fallen asleep, you should be awake for no longer than 20 minutes total for the entire night.

Core sleep

We hear a lot about highly successful people who sleep very few hours a night. This leaves many of us wondering what the minimum amount of sleep needed for brain function is. Although four or five hours a night might work for some tech entrepreneurs or famous businessmen-turned-politicians, Arkin cautions us against forcing ourselves into a pattern of so few hours of sleep. While we all have different sleep needs, four-and-a-half to five-and-half hours is “the minimal amount that you can get away with and still function the next day. With it, you won’t be at the top of your class or performing brain surgery perhaps, but you’ll be perfectly able to drive your car, do your job and interact with people.” Arkin cautions that this is true provided you are able to get the right amount of sleep the following night.

The importance of sleep can’t be overstated — we’ve covered the side effects of a lack of sleep here. We all know this intuitively after a night of not getting enough sleep. It affects our mood and our mental health, and prolonged sleep deprivation is torturous — just ask anyone suffering from insomnia, or a new parent. Though a good night’s sleep escapes all of us from time to time, those with recurring sleep issues often suffer real hardship. Stay tuned for the next instalment in our three-part series, focusing on the effects of lack of sleep.

Having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep? If you’re in Ontario can now connect with experienced Canadian sleep therapists through Maple, who can help improve your sleep habits without medication.

* Sleep requirements based on the latest National Sleep Foundation guidelines

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