How much sleep do you need? Why can’t you sleep? How long can you go without sleep? Here’s everything you could possibly need to know about sleep

Sleep is a wonderful and necessary thing – maybe even our favourite – but the fact that we don’t know everything there is to know about it is, somewhat ironically, keeping us awake at night. So, we enlisted the help of sleep doctor Dr Michael Breus, a clinical psychologist and a fellow of The American Academy of Sleep Medicine who works closely with luxury bed brand hästens, to answer the most googled questions on sleep.

How much sleep do you need?

“This has been a controversial question as long as I have been a sleep doctor,” says Dr Breus. “As your body changes so does your sleep need,” which explains why that need decreases gradually from birth through to adulthood, before increasing once we reach old age. “But I do not like to think of sleep only as a quantity measure, but rather as a quality measure as well,” he continues. “More specifically, as a sleep specialist I look at how quickly a person falls asleep; how many awakenings they have; how long the awakenings are; what time do they wake up; is it with an alarm; do they hit the snooze button; and how refreshed does a person feel in the morning,” he explains. “If a person gets in bed at a fairly regular schedule, falls asleep within 20 minutes, has one or two short awakenings (of about five minutes), and maybe a bathroom break, and wakes for the day at the same time each day feeling refreshed, then they are getting the amount of sleep they need.” And this will, of course, vary from person to person.

Why can't I sleep?

For Dr Breus, this comes down to both internal and external factors. 

Internally, anxiety is what he cites as being the main thing affecting our ability to sleep. “This is not necessarily the type of anxiety associated with panic attacks and phobias,” but simply “that we are all under everyday stress, and even though we may not feel it, it's there and it's affecting our sleep,” he explains. “Specifically, once people get in bed, and no one is asking them things or making demands on their time, all the thoughts from the day come flooding in, and that will elevate stress and anxiety,” he continues. “It’s what we technically call autonomic arousal, which is when your heart rate and respiration increases, therefore going in the opposite direction of sleep.”

Externally, he sees your “Sleep System” (what bed, mattress, pillows and bed linen you have) as being a huge issue. “I believe that sleep is a performance activity. I am a runner. As a runner, I can run a race in my flip-flops, with a radio on my arm, but my time will not be good. But if I have on the right running shoes, clothes, and good tunes in my head, I can fly. The same holds true with sleep. You want the best equipment to get the best outcomes.”

What is insomnia?

“There are many types of insomnia,” says Dr Breus. “But we generally seem to see three types: inability to fall asleep, difficulty staying asleep, and waking up too early.” Essentially, if it takes you “longer than 30 minutes to fall asleep, or you wake up more than three times a night, for longer than 30 minutes, and this occurs more than three times per week, and lasts longer than three weeks, you probably have acute insomnia, which may be on its way to chronic if unresolved,” he explains. There are lots of things that can help from sleeping aids to changes to your sleeping habits. If those don’t work, however, and your sleeplessness is bringing you significant distress, it could be worth booking in with your GP for further advice.

How do you get to sleep fast?

In truth, the answer to this is “probably more simple than many people think,” says Dr Breusl. “First of all, people need to have a consistent bedtime and wake-up time,” he says. “Your internal circadian rhythm is a clock that runs all the functions in your body (there are actually over 300 of them), and sleep is one of the top. Everyone has a genetically preprogrammed sleep and wake schedule called a chronotype.” Once you discover what yours is, and the ‘schedule’ that comes with it, you can get to avoiding “things that will disrupt your sleep during the daytime”. Unsurprisingly, these include “caffeine, alcohol, exercise too close to bed, evening bright light exposure and discussing emotional topics before bed.”

What is sleep paralysis?

Simply put, if you experience sleep paralysis you experience the feeling of being conscious but unable to move. “It can occur when you are awakened from sleep and it also can occur when you’re in the process of falling asleep,” says Dr Breus. But, as frightening as it sounds, Dr Michael is keen to state that sleep paralysis “isn’t actually dangerous” nor “typically a sign of a serious condition.”

What causes sleep paralysis?

“The cause of sleep paralysis isn’t known,” Dr Breus says. But that doesn’t mean we can’t discuss what we do know about it. For example, “what we know is that sleep paralysis disrupts REM [Rapid Eye Movement] sleep, where your most vivid dreams occur. Most sleep experts think that sleep paralysis occurs when we become alert in between REM and other sleep stages. During regular REM sleep, your heart rate and breathing accelerates, while your body enters a stage called antonia,” he says. Antonia is “just a fancy way of saying your muscles become paralysed. It’s a normal part of sleep, but sleep paralysis is being aware and awake while it is happening.” While researchers have yet to pinpoint exactly what makes some people more susceptible to sleep paralysis than others, risk factors include “chronic anxiety and depression, high blood pressure, sleep medications, being sleep deprived, PTSD, and even sleeping disorders such as sleep apnoea and narcolepsy.” Interestingly, “studies show that students and psychiatric patients are at highest risk for sleep paralysis, with up to 28% of students and just under 32% of psychiatric patients experiencing at least a single episode,” Dr Breus says. If you persistently experience sleep paralysis, visit your GP to rule out any underlying causes.

How do you sleep better?

Dr Breus informs us that there are in fact five ways to help you sleep better: following a consistent sleep schedule; making sure your bedroom is conducive to sleep; putting away electronic devices; practicing good sleep hygiene; and limiting alcohol and caffeine consumption.

“A consistent bedtime is one of the easiest changes you can make to ensure you get the restful sleep you need,” says Dr Breus. “To do this, you just need to go to bed at the same time each night and wake up at the same time every morning.” In doing this, “you essentially train your body to be ready for sleep at bedtime, and then ready to wake up in the morning.” If you don’t know exactly when you should go to sleep or wake up, it’s worth figuring out your chronotype – try a morningness-eveningness questionnaire (MEQ) or the Munich Chronotype Questionnaire (MCTQ) – if you don’t know it already.

“You want your bedroom to be the perfect environment for getting the rejuvenating, deep sleep that’ll help you be at your best,” says Dr Breus. Installing blackout blinds is an excellent move if you work night shifts or are generally just sensitive to light. If it’s sound that tends to be the problem, “consider using a white noise sound machine to provide peaceful ambiance, or to cover any intrusive sounds that can keep you awake, including snoring partners or pets.” If you’d rather go down the traditional route, earplugs remain “a very inexpensive and widely accessible option.”

The issue with electronic devices and sleep can be because of the artificial blue light they emit. “Overexposure to artificial blue light before bed inhibits your natural melatonin production and prevents you from falling asleep on time or sleeping through the night,” explains Dr Breus. “The best thing you can do to ensure your devices don’t harm your sleep is to stop using them at least 60 minutes, but preferably 90 minutes, before bed. This gives your brain adequate time to produce the melatonin it needs to help you sleep.”

What is sleep hygiene?

You might not have heard of the concept of sleep hygiene before but, as Dr Breus tells us, “Good sleep hygiene is very important to getting a good night’s sleep. Sleep hygiene consists of all habits before bed, including what we do each evening to unwind before we go to sleep. The right habits can make all the difference between excellent sleep and another restless night.” These can include taking a warm bath or shower one or two hours before bed; writing your thoughts down in a sleep journal to help you decompress and relieve stress; incorporating some relaxation techniques into your schedule such as meditation or yoga.

“Consuming caffeine within six hours of your bedtime can actually reduce your total sleep time by over forty minutes,” says Dr Breus. “Alcohol may not keep you awake like caffeine does, but it can sabotage your sleep quality in some sneaky ways,” he continues. In fact, “alcohol consumption is often associated with sleep disorders such as short sleep duration, insomnia, and circadian rhythm abnormalities. Alcohol can also cause or worsen snoring by relaxing the soft tissues in your throat, causing them to obstruct your airways.” And you don’t want to be annoying to sleep beside, do you?

What is sleep apnoea?

“Sleep apnoea is a serious sleep disorder that causes your airway to close, cutting off your breathing during sleep,” says Dr Breus. While it varies in severity from person to person, “sleep apnoea of any degree prevents you from getting restful sleep, and can lead to chronic sleep deprivation, which is associated with a litany of serious health problems, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity,” he says. Symptoms of sleep apnoea include waking up feeling tired and unrefreshed; excessive fatigue during the day; morning headaches; difficulties with concentration, memory and focus; moodiness; chronic congestion; and someone observing your disrupted breathing while you sleep. It’s important to see your GP if you’re experiencing any of the symptoms of sleep apnoea.

Is six hours of sleep enough?

“This question is very difficult to answer because everyone is different, and we all need different amounts of sleep at different times in our lives,” says Dr Breus. “But as a general rule, as an adult you should try to get seven to nine hours of sleep each evening.”

How long can you go without sleep?

“The world’s record was set by Randy Gardner,” says Dr Breus. “It's 11 days and 25 minutes.” But, of course, we wouldn’t advise this!

How to sleep in the summer heat?

We may not always get the summers we deserve in the UK, but when the heat does come it can make sleeping peacefully a difficult task. As Dr Breus says in his blog The Sleep Doctor, “the temperature of our surrounding environment is one of the most important factors that influences sleep.” In summer, “hot temperatures make it harder for the body to shed heat and cool itself.” So, how do you sleep in the summer heat? While fans and air conditioners are an obvious solution, it’s also worthwhile investing in blackout curtains or blinds as “they offer significant light protection, they help keep rooms cooler in warm months, and help retain heat at night during cold months,” Dr Breus explains. “On particularly warm nights, you may be most comfortable sleeping naked,” he continues. If that’s not for you, just be sure to “avoid synthetics such as polyester, which don’t breathe well”. Lastly, “don’t exercise too close to bedtime, as exercise in the evening can impede and delay that important downward shift in body temperature and keep you awake,” he says.

Our favourite tools for excellent sleep hygiene
Aromatherapy Associates Deep Relax Roller Ball

This is such a joy to use that you may find yourself applying it constantly, but it’s best applied as you get ready for bed. Vetivert, chamomile and sandalwood are what makes it smell so good and aid a restful night’s sleep.

This Works Deep Sleep Pillow Spray, 75ml

One of the most appealing things about the This Works Deep Sleep Pillow Spray is that it’s proven to work: an independent study of 200 adults (including those that had previously been on a prescription to aid sleep) found that 89% of them fell asleep faster than normal and that 98% felt more refreshed in the morning. The key to its success? A signature blend of lavender, chamomile and vetivert.

Headspace Sleep Giftcard 6 months Pre-Paid Membership

As Dr Michael explained above, one thing you can do to improve your sleep hygiene is meditate. So, what better to help with that than a six-month membership to Sleep by Headspace?

Bach Rescue Remedy Night Liquid Melts

Do you ever get repetitive thoughts just as you need to go to sleep? Same. The flower essences – especially the white chestnut – in these Bach Rescue Remedy Night Liquid Melts should help with that. Now, relax.