Why Eight Hours?

When it comes to sleep, I think many people shy away from being their own expert. There are often articles written eschewing the benefits of getting eight hours of sleep. Then another one says that eight hours is too much!

I obviously haven't done any scientific research on this, but my own personal experience of sleeping is that people need differing amounts. Is it even worth telling people what the average amount needed is when everyone is different? Perhaps there is a minimum amount of sleep people need, but then again there are people who swear that they only get four or five hours of sleep and can function totally fine (not to mention famous people – like Margaret Thatcher, Martha Stewart and Thomas Edison who are believed to get or got by on only four hours of sleep per night).

So how excited was I to find Professor Jim Horne, director of Loughborough University's Sleep Research Centre quoted in last week's issue of Stylist magazine. "Sleep requirement is not an absolute. Eight hours is bandied about because it's a good average – some people can manage on much less and some need more."

He goes on to say that the important thing is to find out what works for you by judging how you feel the next day. The article explains, "Daytime sleepiness, inability to concentrate and depressed mood could all indicate that you aren't getting enough sleep at night. On the other hand, if you feel sprightly and at peace with the world after five hours' sleep, then good for you – no need to worry."

I totally agree with this message. Know thyself. Be your own expert. It's refreshing for once to not be handed a prescriptive message about sleep in a populist publication.

Another quite interesting thing that the article mentioned was the fact that cognitive behavioral therapy (known as CBT) is increasingly being used to treat insomnia. CBT is a type of therapy that focuses on thoughts and behaviors and how they may contribute to life problems. Unlike other talking therapy, like psychotherapy, CBT focuses on the here and now, and while acknowledging the past, does not dwell on issues from it.

This development is interesting as I once read an article – which I am annoyed that I didn't save – about a sleep expert who was helping patients by focusing not on improving their sleep quality but by looking at what they were, or were not, doing during the day, such as helping them to learn how to breathe properly. (And you know how I feel about proper breathing!)

In the article the expert (whoever he was) explained that most people who sleep normally don't even think about sleep and don't do anything in particular to nod off. Whereas those who battle insomnia obsess over it and work themselves up – making cups of warm milk at bedtime and buying sound machines.

This made sense to me. The more you worry and obsess about a problem, the worse it can sometimes become. Which is why it makes sense that more holistic approaches are now being explored, such as CBT.

I have to say that I am quite lucky with sleep (although not mornings). Being a good sleeper may have something to do with the fact that I am a low energy person generally and need caffeine to get anything done. If I could just loll around on a chaise lounge reading all day I definitely would.

However, my brain has a lot more energy. So, knowing myself as I do, I use exercise as something that helps me to balance out this strange discrepancy. This doesn't sound incredibly scientific (and it's not), but it's the way it feels to me. It's as if I need to rev up my physical state and slow down my mind.

So again, that's why it's important to be our own experts. You know yourself best and when you're working out something as fundamental as how many hours a night to sleep (or how much exercise you need to do and why), knowing yourself is a good place to start.

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