Everyone has some nights when they toss and turn, struggling to fall sleep — and stay asleep. But if you find yourself regularly relying on energy drinks or coffee to get through the day, you might be one of the many adults in the U.S. with sleep problems.
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy
You don’t have to have sleep apnea or narcolepsy to find your days disrupted by sleep loss. Daily worries, heartburn, and even hormonal shifts are a few reasons you might find yourself staring at the ceiling at 1 a.m.
And those lattes that got you through the day? They also may be the reason you are up at night. It takes time for your body to fully metabolize caffeine — which many people do not realize can take even longer as you get older.
But whatever the reasons, sleep deprivation can chip away at your mental and physical health. To deal with it, first you need to get a sense of your true sleep needs.
How much sleep do you actually need?
How much sleep should you get every night? While there are some general guidelines, no one really knows exactly how much sleep each person needs, says Laurence Smolley, MD, Medical Director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Cleveland Clinic Florida, Weston. What we do know is that it’s determined by genetics and individual needs.
As a general rule, the average adult (after their teen years) needs about seven to eight hours of sleep each night. Some people — what Dr. Smolley calls “short sleepers” — can get by on five or six hours a night. “Long sleepers” may need nine to 10 hours nightly to feel rested.
“People need to be aware there is no magic number and they should try to be conscious of what they need to function,” he says.
One way to help you figure out how much sleep you really need is to keep a sleep journal. In it, you can track the hours of sleep you get and take notes about how you feel (whether rested or not). Some activity trackers can help you track sleep quality (in terms of times awake or restless) as well as the actual hours of shut-eye you get each night.
Remedies for occasional sleep problems
If you’ve had an all-night study session or stayed at the bar way too late, there are two things you can do to catch up quickly.
A 15- to 20-minute catnap can sometimes be “rejuvenating and improve function for several hours,” Dr. Smolley says. Another option is to turn off the alarm the next night and sleep until you wake up spontaneously.
Because a regular schedule is important to good sleep, however, these should be one-time remedies and shouldn’t be used regularly, he says.
4 tips to getting better sleep
If your sleep disturbances are chronic, use these tips to help get back on track:
- Get up at the same time each day. You don’t set your internal clock by your bedtime, but by your morning routine — when you are vertical, out of bed and exposed to daylight.
- Avoid naps. If you frequently sleep during the day, the mechanism that tells you when you’re tired at night will be less effective. Daytime sleep makes it more difficult to fall asleep when you go to bed for the night.
- Exercise early in the day. If you work out at night, the body heat created and adrenaline rush can make it harder to relax.
- Avoid caffeine, nicotine and some medications. Caffeinated beverages and nicotine make you more wakeful. Medications like those in inhalers also can sometimes keep you up.
Health risks and ‘sleep intoxication’
If you aren’t getting enough sleep, it’s important to understand the effects it may have on you. Intense sleep deprivation — a full 24 hours without sleep — can result in symptoms similar to intoxication, Dr. Smolley says. Sleep deprivation impairs your judgment, and you may struggle to make decisions or stay alert.
More common than this dramatic, one-time deprivation, however, is chronic, poor sleep quality. Several consecutive nights of bad sleep due to a new baby, a snoring partner or a sleep disorder like sleep apnea can also result in this “intoxicated” experience.
“Sleep should be refreshing and restorative,” Dr. Smolley says. When it isn’t, you can struggle with mental changes.
When you are lacking in sleep, it can affect various parts of the brain. This can result in:
- Difficulty staying on task
- Lack of ability to focus in monotonous situations or on repetitive tasks
- Falling asleep in school or during meetings at work
- Difficulty learning
- Mood changes like anxiety, depression or paranoia
- Decreased alertness while driving or operating dangerous machines
According to Dr. Smolley, the verdict isn’t completely in on how a lack of sleep affects the body. There is, however, research showing a relationship between poor sleep and a higher risk of:
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- A weakened immune system
In the end, keeping a regular schedule and avoiding certain habits can go a long way toward improving sleep and decreasing your risk of health problems. If this doesn’t work and the problem lingers, don’t hesitate to talk to your doctor.