Do we need to be told how much sleep we need?

Sleep is one of the key pillars of health

With news that Ministers are reportedly planning to issue guidance on how much sleep people should be getting every night, let's take a look at why sleep is important.

Sleep is essential for maintaining good mental and physical health.  Along with nutrition and exercise, good sleep is one of the pillars of health.

A lack of regular sleep is said to put you at risk of serious medical conditions, including obesity, heart disease, depression and diabetes – and it shortens your life expectancy. It's also said to have a link with Alzheimer’s.

As many as one in three people can have some difficulty with sleeping. However, there are many things you can do to help yourself. A normal night's sleep has three main parts:

  • Deep sleep
  • Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep which when the brain is very active, but the body is limp, apart from the eyes which move rapidly. Most dreaming occurs during REM sleep.
  • Short periods of waking for 1-2 minutes, several times a night.

We all feel tired occasionally. Usually this is down to burning the candle at both ends, whether it be due to too many late nights, a heavy workload or a new baby. However, if you keep feeling tired, you should try to figure out what is really making you so.

Having trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep?

  • Insomnia means poor sleep. About one third of adults do not get as much sleep as they would like. Poor sleep can mean:
  • Not being able to get to sleep
  • Waking up too early
  • Waking for long periods in the night
  • Not feeling refreshed after a night's sleep.

If you have poor sleep, you may be tired in the daytime, have reduced concentration, become irritable, or just not function well.

Different people need different amounts of sleep. Some people function well and are not tired during the day with just 3-4 hours' sleep a night. Most people need more than this. To need 6-9 hours per night is average. Most people establish a pattern that is normal for them in their early adult life. However, as you become older, it is normal to sleep less. For most people it takes less than thirty minutes to fall asleep.

It can be helpful to think about:

  • Parts of your life, such as work and family, that might be particularly tiring
  • Events in your life that make you tired, e.g. relationship problems
  • How your lifestyle may be making you tired.

It might be helpful to talk to your GP/occupational health provider. They will look at the psychological, physical and lifestyle causes of tiredness. These can include:

  • Stress, anxiety or depression
  • Physical causes such as anaemia, an under-active thyroid or sleep apnoea
  • Too much alcohol, caffeine or your unsociable hours of work.

What can I do to help myself sleep better?

If you have problems sleeping, then sleep hygiene can help. This means doing things which are known to improve sleep, and avoiding those things which are known to disturb sleep. Here are some things that can help

  • Avoid caffeine and caffeine at least four hours before you go to bed
  • Avoid alcohol near bedtime as it can disrupt sleep
  • Don’t eat a BIG meal before bed
  • Do regular exercise but stop two hours before bed
  • Make your bedroom a nice, tidy place to be in
  • Avoid making your bedroom too hot or cold
  • Keep your bedroom dark and quiet at night
  • Keep your bedroom just for sleeping
  • Try to maintain regular sleep patterns
  • Try a sleep app
  • Try a sleep diary to track your sleep patterns and find out what keeps you awake at night.


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