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How much sleep do I need? Your sleep hygiene questions answered

Duncan Reid: Patient Safety & Professional Services Manager | minute read
sleep routine image, woman smiling in bed

According to Nuffield Health’s 2023 Healthier Nation Index, 49% of UK adults reported that their sleep quality had declined in the last 12 months. The annual survey of over 8,000 people also found that the average length of time we spend asleep has fallen to below 6 hours per night. In this article, we outline the importance of regular good-quality sleep and what you can do to help improve your sleep routine.

Why is sleep so important?

Sleep is a basic need for our bodies to maintain good physical and mental wellbeing. It provides the opportunity for our bodies to rest, restore, and repair, with multiple processes taking place throughout the various phases of sleep, such as hormone regulation. Due to its complexity, the full impact of sleep on our health and wellbeing is still being widely researched. We do know, however, that a regular lack of sleep can lead to adverse health effects such as irritability, low mood, difficulty concentrating, and severe fatigue.

How much sleep do I need?

The NHS recommends that most healthy adults should aim for between 7-9 hours of sleep each night. For teenagers and children, between 9 and 13 hours is required, while babies and toddlers need around 12 to 17 hours. You might find that you need slightly more or less than the recommended hours as each person is different.

What is sleep hygiene?

Sleep hygiene is the term used to describe a regular sleep routine. It includes healthy sleep habits such as set times for going to bed and waking up each day. An important element of good sleep hygiene is allowing for wind-down time before bed. This gives you chance to relax and prepare your body and mind for sleep. It could involve limiting screen time 30 minutes before bed, enjoying a hot, noncaffeinated drink like a fruit tea, or reading a few pages of your book.

How can I get a better night’s sleep?

There are lots of different ways you can prepare for a better night’s sleep. It helps to be patient and give things time to see what works best for you. You might find that some techniques work better than others. If you do find yourself struggling to get to sleep, move to another room where you’re comfortable and try a calming activity like reading or listening to soothing music until you feel sleepier.

Set the temperature

Your sleep environment plays a big part in getting a comfortable, uninterrupted night’s rest. The NHS recommends a room temperature of between 16 and 20 degrees Celsius. In the cooler months, you might want to consider keeping a couple of blankets at the end of the bed so you can layer them over your duvet. In summer, try sleeping with a window open if it’s safe to do so. If your bedroom is on the ground floor or you don’t feel comfortable sleeping with the window open, trickle vents allow controlled airflow without needing to open your window.

Blinds and curtains

A blackout blind or specially lined curtains can help block out any artificial outside lights that may make it difficult to drift off. They’ll also help you to sleep through early sunrises in the summer months.

Digital detox each night 

Try to put some distance between yourself and your phone or other electronic devices before you go to sleep. Digital screens often emit blue light which can disrupt our body’s melatonin production (the hormone that makes you feel sleepy) and have a negative impact on our ability to get to sleep. If you rely on your phone for a morning alarm, set it in plenty of time and consider putting your phone on aeroplane mode (this won’t affect the alarm) until morning. If you do need to use an electronic device, check the settings as many now have a ‘night mode’ option that reduces blue light emissions.

Relaxation techniques

A warm bath or shower before bed is favoured by some people to help them unwind from the day. You might also want to try meditation to help you prepare for sleep. The NHS has a great resource that looks at the different meditation techniques. Don’t worry if you’ve never done meditation before, the guide includes different types that are beginner-friendly. Mindfulness is another relaxation practice that can help aid sleep. This can be particularly helpful if you’re prone to anxiety around bedtime. Journalling thoughts and feelings can help clear your mind ready for sleep, as can talking to someone you trust about anything that’s troubling you.

Lifestyle factors

Diet and exercise can impact our sleep. Making some small changes can yield noticeable results in your sleep pattern. As a general rule, try to avoid stimulants like caffeine six to eight hours before bed and give your body time to digest your evening meal before trying to sleep. Nicotine is also a stimulant that can impact sleep. If you’re a smoker, have a look at the advice and information available if you’re thinking about quitting. Our nicotine replacement guide looks at the different stop smoking aids available and outlines the many health benefits of giving up for good. Half an hour of physical activity each day offers multiple health benefits, including to our sleep. This can be as simple as a brisk walk in the morning, at lunchtime, or in the early evening depending on what fits with your usual routine.

When should I see a doctor?

Most of us experience the occasional night of disrupted sleep from time to time. This is normal and shouldn’t be anything to worry about. However, if you’re regularly experiencing sleepless nights, it may be having a negative impact on your overall health and wellbeing. Try the self-help techniques outlined in this article and make a note of your sleeping patterns so it’s easier to identify any ongoing factors that could be contributing to your broken sleep. The NHS has a self-assessment sleep tool online that will give you a sleep score and identify when you should consider talking to your GP. You can also subscribe to their six-week sleep improvement email programme for regular sleep tips and support. If your sleep issues have been continuing for months or it’s having a negative impact on your ability to cope, speak to your doctor.