On average, how many hours of sleep do you get each night? For most healthy adults, guidelines recommend at least seven hours of sleep.
But these are just general suggestions, not strict rules. “Some people need less than seven hours, and others may need longer,” says Eric Zhou of Harvard Medical School’s Department of Sleep Medicine.
We get it: You know those people who swear they only need five hours of sleep a night, but unless you get eight to nine hours, you’re going to feel lost. The main reason for individual differences is that we often view sleep in the wrong way.
“We shouldn’t just focus on how much sleep we get each night; quality,” Zhou said.
Sleep quality refers to the quality of sleep you get at night. Did you fall asleep directly? Or do you ever have periods where you wake up? If so, does it take you a long time to fall asleep? How do you feel when you wake up?
“If you wake up refreshed and feel like you have the energy to get through the day, then I’m less concerned about how many hours of sleep you got,” Zhou said.
Sleep quality is vital to our overall health. Studies show that people with poor sleep quality are at higher risk for mental health problems such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and anxiety and depression.
That’s not all. “Lack of sleep can also increase daytime fatigue, making it harder to enjoy life,” Zhou says.
However, it’s normal for people’s sleep patterns to change over time. “A lot of people don’t sleep as well in their 50s and 60s as they did in their 20s,” Zhou said.
Many of these changes are age-related. For example, your circadian rhythm (which regulates many body functions, including our sleep-wake cycle) can naturally be disrupted over time. This means people spend less time in restorative slow-wave sleep each night.
The production of melatonin (the sleep hormone) also gradually declines with age. “As a result of these changes, as we age, we may start to wake up earlier than when we were younger, or wake up more frequently during the night,” Zhou said.
How can you better understand the factors that may affect your sleep quality? One way is to keep a sleep diary to track and record your sleep.
Keep a daily log of what time you went to bed, how long it took you to fall asleep, whether you woke up during the night (and if so, how long you were awake), and when you woke up. Also, take note of how you feel when you wake up and at the end of the day.
“After a week or two, review the information and see if you can identify some patterns that may be affecting your sleep quality and then make adjustments,” Zhou says.
For example, if you have trouble falling asleep, go to bed half an hour later than usual but keep the same wake-up time. “It’s common for people who have difficulty sleeping to try to get more sleep by staying in bed longer, but this can disrupt their sleep patterns and reduce the quality of their sleep,” Zhou said.
Three key strategies to support sleep quality
Other strategies to help support good sleep quality include:
- Keep a consistent wake-up time, especially on weekends
- Limit daytime naps to 20 to 30 minutes and at least six hours before your desired bedtime
- Be physically active.
When it comes to sleep quality, consistency is crucial. “People who sleep well often have a predictable sleep window,” Zhou said. “People who sleep well are likely to sleep the same amount of time and sleep through the night.”
Expecting a perfect night’s sleep every night is unrealistic. “If you have trouble sleeping one or two nights a week, it may be related to the natural ebb and flow of life,” Zhou says. “You might have had a big meal that day, had one too many drinks while watching football, or had a tense argument with someone. When tracking sleep quality, look at your overall sleep health each week, rather than How you slept this Tuesday compared to last Tuesday.”
If you’re doing all the right things for sleep but still feel unrerested when you wake up, talk to your doctor. This can help you rule out sleep disorders such as sleep apnea, or other health issues that may interfere with sleep, such as acid reflux or high blood pressure. Other factors that may affect sleep quality include taking multiple medications, depression, anxiety, loneliness, and environmental changes such as temperature, noise, and lighting.