Determining how long you should sleep for is a bit like trying to bake a cake. Even the slightest differentiation in quantities can give rise to entirely different results.
Just like cake, everyone loves good sleep, but not everyone’s recipe for getting the rest the body needs is the same. Eight has always been sleep’s golden number, the poster child of a perfectly completed sleep cycle. Optimal yes, but convenient no.
While rest will always be a treasure you can’t measure, today we’ll be determining just how little sleep you can actually get away with while still maximising its best benefits.
The cycle of successful sleep
It’s getting much more difficult for sleep to be consistent night after night in today's modern fast-paced world, and it’s understandable that at times eight hours can seem like an especially tall order.
Sleep is first and foremost for restoring the body and setting it up properly for the demands of the next day ahead. As we alluded to a little earlier, its optimal quality hinges on the sleep cycle, the mighty circadian rhythm.
Just to give you a quick run-through, a typical sleep cycle lasts between 90 and 110 minutes and is completed in five simple steps. Stages one and two will be finished within the first half hour, lowering the heart rate and body temperature and tipping you into a deep state of relaxation.
During stages three and four, which together last up to 40 minutes, the body experiences significant mental and physical rejuvenation during a period known as deep sleep.
Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep is what finishes the cycle, and usually lasts for around 10 minutes but gets longer throughout the night. It’s the time that the brain’s at its most active and is therefore also when vivid dreams occur. REM sleep has been closely linked with emotional regulation and memory consolidation, and it’s a really critical time for cognitive development.
When REM sleep is completed, the whole cycle starts back at the beginning again, with the average person usually achieving between four to five sleep cycles a night.
The question of time
With all of this in mind, when trying to pinpoint the optimal time to drop out of the cycle and wake up, there are a few key things to take into consideration, namely the 90-minute difference between cycle four and cycle five.
If you were to wake up after completing four cycles, that would equate to around six hours of sleep a night, whereas jumping the 90-minute gap and completing five cycles will take your sleep to just shy of eight hours.
There are naturally going to be areas of the cycle where ‘do not disturb’ should be a rule to sleep by, and this rule is particularly true when it comes to deep sleep, which is sometimes also referred to as slow-wave sleep.
Because this stage marks the point at which the body is at its most restful, awakening from it often leads to a condition known as ‘sleep inertia’, which in layman’s terms essentially means grogginess, disorientation and the high potential of falling back asleep.
Of course, it’s near impossible to predict the point of the cycle the body’s in when it’s actually asleep, but it is something that can be anticipated before a night of sleep commences.
When to wake
If you’re aiming to achieve the admittedly more rewarding scope of eight hours of sleep, in order to prevent disturbing the body during periods of deep sleep, it’s advised not to wake up, or at least try to not wake up, any more than 20 minutes either side of the eight-hour mark.
This is to say that if you’re sleeping from 11 pm to 7 am, for example, you’ll be looking to rise 20 minutes on either side of the morning hour to prevent both sleep inertia from kicking in and from the body beginning another sleep cycle.
This trick works exactly the same for the six-hour alternative, as although you’ll be lacking one less cycle than the bolder eight hours, your body will be pretty much in the same stage of the cycle.
It can’t be ignored that eight hours is longer than six, and of course, it will always remain the golden standard for perfect sleep.
But when we bring the biology and chemistry of the sleep cycle into the pursuit of optimal sleep, it also becomes clear why waking after six hours is far more beneficial and favourable than waking after seven, if of course, you can only rest for a limited amount of time.
This is because the body will be right in the middle of completing a new cycle, bang in the centre of deep sleep, and as our rule observes, shouldn’t be disturbed.
So if there’s anything to take away from our investigation and conversation here, it’s that sleep is a game of swinging between light sleep and deep sleep. Eight hours will always be the ideal amount of sleep, but if this can’t be guaranteed or practically achieved, your rest will feel much more rounded, and rewarding, with the next best alternative of six.
An added armoury
The ability to recognise and thus exploit the different stages of the sleep cycle forms just a small part of getting a great night’s rest, and as all the best sleepers will know, the quality of sleep very much depends on how you embrace the best tools and tricks of the trade.
For those among you looking for a simple yet extremely effective way to seize the best benefits of sleep, we’d highly recommend, if not swear by, the extraordinary and sometimes underappreciated benefits of a sleep mask.
Sleep masks tap into a deeper level of sleep science with their ability to provide instant and unshakeable darkness. Sleep loves darkness, after all, darkness is to sleep what oxygen is to a raging fire.
Our award-winning Contoured 3D Blackout Sleep Masks specialise in exactly this, and their unique, tailored design has been hailed by sleepers the world over for their ability to induce a deep sense of relaxation and peacefulness - two famed qualities that go hand-in-hand with a quality of sleep that is the stuff of dreams.
To discover your best side of sleep, as well as our extensive selection of sleep masks and other sleep-affirming products, visit SMUG HQ here.
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