How much sleep do you really need?

An old English proverb says "Six hours sleep for a man, seven for a woman and eight for a fool", but this generalisation doesn't seem to fit everyone, or else there are a lot of fools around...

On average, most people spend approximately a third of their life asleep, which equates to about one hundred and twenty days in a year and twenty-five years in a seventy-five-year lifetime. However the amount of sleep we require changes as we age, with babies sleeping for around sixteen hours a day, children about ten - twelve, and by adulthood it has dropped to around seven hours. Contrary to popular thinking, older adults do not require less sleep than younger adults, but continue with the standard six – eight hours.

However, the above averages do not apply to everyone. In fact the length of sleep a person needs to stay healthy and wake up refreshed can vary significantly from person to person. Some adults function well on five hours of sleep or less, while others seem to do better on eight hours or more. For instance, Albert Einstein reportedly had at least ten hours sleep each night. On the other hand, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was famous for only requiring around four hours sleep each night, but she was also photographed napping during the day time, so perhaps she had more sleep than she was aware of.

This variance can apply within the individual too, depending on the person's current level of health and what the person has been doing in their waking hours. For example, if you have been bushwalking for several hours while carrying a pack on your back, you are more likely to want to have an early night that when you have not been working so hard.

Because such a lot of time is spent in sleep, it is a major player in our lives, but not all sleep is done for a lengthy time in a bed. Some sleep is taken in what is called catnaps or power sleeps. This is when the person has a sound sleep for approximately ten - twenty minutes, waking up refreshed and invigorated. Consequently, these short naps are generally considered a good thing because they improve the person's performance, productivity and mood.

"Only mad dogs and English men go out in the midday sun."
Siesta, a snooze in the middle of the day or early afternoon, is the tradition of many countries found in the hotter parts of the world. The concept of siesta is extremely sensible because by resting when the sun is sweltering, people limit fatigue and the risk of dehydration so that they are able to be more productive when they are actually working.

Having a sleep in the middle of the day also lessens the need for a lengthy sleep at night and so it is possible to have a longer workday by starting early in the morning and continuing into the evening when it is cooler.

Micro sleep
"I want to die peacefully in my sleep like Grandpa, not screaming like the passengers in his car" is said as a joke, but micro sleep, which only lasts for a few seconds, really is a monster that stalks people with poor sleep patterns. The tendency towards episodes of micro sleep while driving or operating machinery should never be ignored. When a person is deprived of sound sleep and is taking part in a boring activity such as driving, he or she is most at risk of falling asleep.

While the micro sleep is incredibly short, if you are driving when it happens this can have serious consequences not only for the sleeper, but also anyone in range of the killer car. If you sense that you are getting tired, then it is clearly advisable to stop and take a short nap. If micro sleep becomes a habit then change your lifestyle or have investigative medical procedures as soon as possible to find out why they are happening.

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