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Health

Debunking the 8-hour Sleep Myth

Tara Youngblood

05.04.20

Debunking the 8-hour Sleep Myth

 

Imagine you and I are running a 400 meter, short distance race.


Leading up to this race, I've been training for it. I've built consistent habits to ensure my body was prepared to sprint its way to victory. And for this exercise, let's also assume my genetics are more specialized for running than yours. They're even calling me the next Usain Bolt.


The starting gun fires and I take off, leaving you in the dust. As I cross the finish line, a good 6 seconds before you, I throw my hands in the air and declare victory. Your coach looks at you, bewildered, and asks “Why didn’t you win, you had the same chance as her?” You can’t believe what you’re hearing. Cleary your coach can see that I’m genetically gifted, I’ve trained to do well in this event, and you also ran your best 400 yet, even if you didn’t beat me.


Your frustration at this fictional coach is no different than the frustration so many of us feel when we don’t achieve the “golden standard” of 8 hours of sleep each night. But just as holding yourself to the race times of Usain Bolt is unfair, so is assuming everyone can and must achieve the same 8 hours of sleep.
Where did this number come from?


Historically, we know that one long, uninterrupted period of sleep was not always the norm. But with the creation of electricity, technology, and the 8-hour workday, humans in industrialized nations found themselves with more light hours and distractions than ever before. The same inventions that brought us increased productivity, stripped us of our close connection to nature and our circadian rhythms.


We don’t tell our bodies, our bodies tell us


Your “internal clock” as some call the circadian rhythm is far more complex than we might know. Not only does it signal us to let our bodies rest, but it also plays a part in our body temperature, heart rate, and hormone regulation. While asleep, and even in the moments before we have fallen asleep, our body is changing to move us into a more relaxed state.


All this said we can’t properly reach deep sleep levels without accommodating the vital contributors to our circadian rhythms. The answer to your best sleep should be less focused on a set number, and more on allowing your body to move naturally into a deep sleep, so you wake up feeling rested.



Quality sleep through thoughtful actions


But how do we prioritize restful sleep, without necessarily adhering to the 8-hour myth as a guideline? Meditation, mindfulness, journaling, and keeping our eyes away from blue light found in devices/ televisions are all great starting points to improving sleep quality. Once our mind is in a calmer state, we can better let go of the day and embrace our body’s need to sleep and recover. Then, once you’re cozy in bed and mentally prepared to rest, your body needs a physical change to happen to signal that it’s the appropriate and safe time for sleep. This change is a drop in temperature.


Matt Walker, Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and founder of the Center for Human Sleep Science tells us:


“Your body needs to drop its core temperature by about two to three degrees Fahrenheit to initiate sleep and then to stay asleep, and it's the reason you will always find it easier to fall asleep in a room that's too cold than too hot.”


Stay cool, stay asleep


But lowering our bedroom temperature can only go so far. To impact our internal body temperature, we have to start with the bed we’re sleeping on—which is why chili was created. You and I have different needs in every aspect of life. So if the demands and stressors of life are deeply nuanced for each individual, why would we ignore the differences in how long we might need, or want, to sleep?


In a recent podcast, Walker reminds us that there is a “Forty-percent deficit in the ability of the brain to make new memories without sleep.” Our sleep recovers our bodies, replenishes our immune systems, and even helps us retain new information learned throughout the day. There is no doubt that we have to prioritize sleep, but I suggest that we shift priority to sleep quality above all else. Even the CDC doesn’t list 8 hours as necessary for adults. Instead, “sufficient sleep” in all its surveyed categories is 7 hours—excluding adolescents.


Together, we can change the conversation around good sleep habits; and that starts with debunking the 8-hour sleep myth. Instead, find your ideal environment, temperature, and habits that lead to restful sleep, as you define it. For me, restful sleep means fewer cups of coffee, and for you, it might mean the energy to chase the kids a little longer or mow the lawn with fury. I know 8 hours of sleep isn’t ideal for me. With the help of chili, you can find your personal, "ideal" quality sleep so you can strive toward progress, not a magical, arbitrary number.


To gain insights into your specific needs through your sleep chronotype, take our sleep quiz.