The importance of getting a good night’s sleep cannot be overstated. Sleep affects everything from learning and memory to metabolism and cardiovascular health, and a recent study published in the Journal of Neuroscience found that a lack of sleep can even lead to permanent brain damage.
But how much sleep do we actually need, and how can you tell if you’re getting enough of it?
The right amount of sleep varies from person to person and depends on factors like age, genetics and lifestyle. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) report that on average adults need seven to nine hours of sleep each night, while preschoolers need between ten and 12 hours, and babies can sleep for up to 18 hours a day.
Author and University of Washington sleep researcher Dr. Gregory Jantz, notes that when people don’t get the recommended hours of sleep daily, they develop certain levels of sleep disorders throughout their lifetime.
“Sleep presents the body an opportunity to repair and rebuild and gives the mind the opportunity to process the stresses and events of the day, and while it does depend on the person and profession, most people need at least seven hours of sleep,” says Jantz.
He adds that when our body and mind are in a confused state due to a lack of sleep, we naturally have less energy, which can result in a number of problems.
“Without energy, there’s no drive to exercise, which often leads to people succumbing to escapism behavior such as overeating, drinking alcohol, and taking prescription drugs.”
Yawning or dozing off involuntarily throughout the day are sure signs of sleep deprivation, but the symptoms aren’t always this obvious. Here are five other signs that your body is craving more shut-eye.
1. You need an alarm clock to wake up in the morning
One of the easiest ways to tell if you are well rested is how easy it is for you to get up in the morning. If you’re going to bed on time and sleeping enough each night, you’ll wake up around the same time each day, without feeling tired or groggy.
2. You feel the need to sleep in on your day off
Believe it or not, if you feel the need to sleep in for hours every time you have a day off work, there’s a good chance that you have a sleep debt, which means you aren’t getting enough quality sleep throughout the week.
3. You feel irritable or emotional for no apparent reason
When you haven’t slept enough you’ll be less capable of coping with stressful situations or emotions, and even the smallest things can set you off – perhaps a small dispute at work that would ordinarily be dealt with and forgotten leaves you fuming for hours, or maybe sappy TV commercials you’d normally laugh at have you reaching for a box of tissues.
4. You’re unusually forgetful or clumsy and have difficulty concentrating
Do you often walk into a room and forget why you’re there? Have clumsy accidents like spilling coffee or missing a step on your way down the stairs become more frequent? Are you finding it difficult to stay focused at work or school? If so, there’s a good chance you should be sleeping more.
5. Your sex drive is down
Men and women who are sleep deprived often report having less interest in sex, which is unsurprising considering that a lack of sleep results less energy and more irritability. One study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology found that half of all men with sleep apnea have abnormally low testosterone levels, which adversely affects their sex drive.
How to get a better night’s sleep
So what can you do to ensure that your body gets the sleep it needs each night? One thing Jantz recommends is developing a sleep routine, which involves doing the same thing before you go to bed each night.
“If you’re watching TV or in front of an electronic device like mobile phones, computers or tablets, you’re over-stimulating your brain right before bed,” he says. “Be sure to take at least a 30-minute break before bed to help your body and mind shut down.”
He also suggests avoiding stimulants or alcohol just before bed. “Alcohol especially decreases your sleep stages,” he explains. “So it feels like you never really got the sleep, even if you went to bed at an appropriate time.”
Research also shows that eating too close to your bedtime makes it more difficult to fall asleep and may even reduce the overall quality of your sleep. So try to avoid late-night snacking and plan to have your dinner at least four hours before you go to bed.
Marianne Stenger is a writer with Open Colleges. She covers career development, workplace productivity and self-improvement. You can connect with her on Twitter and Google+, or find her latest articles here.