When Giorgos, 32, quit drinking alcohol, he learned something interesting. “I’d been off booze for over a year, but when I went out until late I felt like I had a hangover the next day”. Then he worked out why, it seemed obvious. A big part of a hangover is, in fact, due to sleep deprivation. If lack of sleep can make you feel that bad, would tuning up your sleep schedule greatly improve your life? And how does one even do that when you’ve got to get up at an ungodly hour in order to make it to work? In the words of Morpheus: rest, Neo, the answers are coming.

How much sleep do I need?

You may have heard that the recommendation for adults is seven or eight hours of sleep per night. But that is not the whole truth. If you feel better after nine hours, go for it. A lot of factors feed into your sleep requirement, including age, state of health, quality of sleep, how much sleep you’ve been having lately, etc. The most reliable way to tell how much you need is to let your body tell you. You may feel a little unwilling to wake up, but if that feeling doesn’t dissipate after breakfast, you’ve gotten out of bed too early.

Perhaps you have also heard that less than seven hours of sleep will leave you deprived. That’s correct but only if you do it continuously. An occasional late night or early rise will not cause any damage, provided that you catch up on your sleep afterwards. As with anything, there are anomalies: some adults can be fine with as little as six hours per night, and never need more. However, it’s a relatively rare genetic mutation. Listen to your body.

How can I even get this amount of sleep?

You can always go to sleep earlier but this will be very hard unless you do it consistently. You’d need to switch your screens an hour before bedtime and practice falling asleep earlier, pushing it back in 15min increments until you’re tired at a time that works well for you. Alternatively, you can speak to your manager and see if you can turn alter your working hours. For example, you could turn your 9-to-5 into 10-to-6.

What’s the best way to ‘top up’ on sleep?

Avoid trying to build sleeping time into your commute – you get little bang for your buck, so to speak. The quality of such sleep is quite poor so it should always be the last resort. Sleeping in on weekends is also not a great idea. You want to give your body clear signals about when to go to sleep and when to wake up, and you do this by not deviating from your normal sleep schedule. If you have to catch up on the sleep deficit, have a daytime nap. Keep it under 20 minutes and have it in the first part of the day so it doesn’t interfere with your sleep-wake cycle.

But should I nap at all?

male in bed with blinds throwing a shadow on his body

No harm in a little daytime nap. Emphasis on ‘little’.

Some people can power-nap. They shut off for five minutes and wake up rested and refreshed. It’s quite rare, however. For the rest of us, napping is only a good idea as an emergency top up and we shouldn’t do it often as it upsets your circadian rhythm. One exception is if you’re regularly deprived of night time sleep, for example if you work nights. However, it’s not recommended to work nights for long stretches of time (over a year), because even if you get enough sleep it messes with your system.

What if I feel very sleepy/cranky when I wake up?

If you feel excessively rough upon awakening, provided that you’re getting enough sleep, it could be that you’re waking up during REM sleep (deep sleep phase). Your body is still producing melatonin at that point and you could be in this sleepy stange for 30mins – 4 hours. If this happens repeatedly, try changing your waking time gradually until you chance on a time that works better. Alternatively, you could buy a sleep cycle alarm clock or use an app that tracks your circadian rhythm.

Another useful gadget is a lamp that wakes you up by simulating natural light (Lumie and similar brands). You can set the light to intensify gradually and it’s supposed to give you a gentler awakening. I have not tested this product but many people that I know swear by it.

A bed worth lying in

It goes without saying that you’ll want the best mattress and pillow that you can afford. There are pillows designed for side sleepers as well as back sleepers, in case that’s something you want to explore. When it comes to bedding, simple cotton is comfortable and durable. There are other natural materials that you can try, too. Some people love wool or silk bedding, but if you want something that’s easy to wash, go for pure linen. Tip: put it in a dryer after the first few washes, then it will remain soft (after those first few washes it’s okay to dry it on the line).

If you’re a restless sleeper, try a weighted duvet. The extra weight ensures a snug fit with no air pockets, which some people find very relaxing. And if you’re recovering from a breakup, don’t feel weird about hugging a pillow or even a soft toy. That simple act can help you avoid a sleepless night, as your body relaxes into a position it’s used to.

What about sleeping aids?

I’ll surprise no one by saying that sleeping tablets are a matter of last resort. However, there are gentle, over-the-counter, non-addictive substances that can aid sleep. Camomile is a classic, buy whole flowers and brew it strong (infuse for 10 minutes or more). Valerian is also great, for maximum effectiveness buy it in root form and simmer it in water to make up a tea (or buy a tincture and add drops to a small amount of water). You could also try a commercial formulation such as Three Spirit’s Nightcap.

Want to know more? See our article on the connection between massage and sleep.