Why 8 Hours of Sleep Isn’t Enough
Article by Rick Popowitz

We sleep, if we are lucky, 8 hours a night. Yet, for something that we spend a third of our lives doing, sleep is something that we know relatively little about. “Sleep is actually a relatively recent discovery,” says Daniel Gartenberg, a sleep scientist who is currently an Assistant Adjunct Professor in Biobehavioral Health at Penn State. “Scientists only started looking at sleep 70 years ago.”


As anyone who has laid awake at night contemplating the complexities of the universe can attest, sleep is a slippery beast. It involves a complex web of biological and neurological processes, all of which can be thrown off by something as simple as a partner’s nasal trumpeting or a coffee too late in the day.


There are also many, many misconceptions about sleep: that you can catch up on  lost hours of shuteye. That you can get by on four or five hours of sleep a night. That a glass of warm milk before bed helps you sleep better.


To set the record straight about sleep,  Daniel Gartenberg has some important insights to offer. Prof. Gartenberg  is currently working on research funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Aging and has also presented a widely watched and highly acclaimed TED Talk.. He’s also an entrepreneur who has launched several cognitive-behavioral-therapy apps. All that with 8.5 hours’ of sleep a night.


In Professor Gartenberg’s work we learn:

  • why 8.5 hours of sleep is the new eight hours
  • the genes that dictate if you’re a morning person or a night owl
  • and tips on how to get a better night’s rest (hint: it’s not your Fitbit)


Why do we need sleep?

What makes sleep so essential for our wellbeing comes down to three main things: to save our energy, to help our cells recover and to help us process and understand our environment.

This third one is what Prof . Gartenberg studies. The core idea here is that during the day, we make all these connections with the world around us. These excitatory connections we make during the day result in the neurons in our brains getting overall higher activation. Then during the nighttime when we sleep, we have a down-regulating process where the things that didn’t really matter to your survival sink to the bottom, and the things that are most relevant to your survival rise to the top. What deep sleep does is all the neural processing, and what REM sleep [rapid-eye-movement sleep] and light sleep do is basically integrate that into your long-term personality and understanding of the world.


What other differences are there between deep sleep and REM sleep?

A lot of people don’t understand that these are two very, very different processes. A lot of people probably learned from basic psych in high school that you have these sleep stages: light sleep > deep sleep > light sleep > REM, and repeat. As you sleep more, you get less and less deep sleep, and also if you sleep-deprive yourself, you get more deep sleep.

During deep sleep, you get these long-burst brain waves that are called delta waves, but during REM, your brainwaves are actually functioning very similarly to waking life. Your body is also paralyzed during REM—it’s a very noticeable physiological difference..


Do we really need that much sleep?

Orfeu Buxton, a colleague of Prof. Gartenberg’s at Penn State says that 8.5 hours of sleep is the new eight hours. In order to get a healthy eight hours of sleep, you need to be in bed for 8.5 hours. The standard in the literature is that healthy sleepers spend more than 90% of the time in bed asleep, so if you’re in bed for eight hours, a healthy sleeper might actually sleep for only about 7.2 hours.

8.5 hours of sleep is the new eight hours.

That being said, some people are short sleepers. You can do a test to find out if you have genetic makeup that makes you a short sleeper. That’s rare, though, so by and large, people are not getting enough sleep. Getting half an hour less than what you need to really adds up over a week period.

To see how much sleep you really need, Prof. Gartenberg suggests that when you go on vacation, try to stick to your normal bedtime and then see what time you wake up. With no stressors or time to get up, you’ll just fall into a natural pattern, and that’s probably how much sleep you actually need.


Circadian Rhythms. What are they, and why are they responsible for that mid-afternoon slump?

We evolved from bacteria in the ocean that could differentiate sunlight from darkness—that’s what ended up forming the human eye. That means every organism is responsive to a circadian rhythm that’s largely dictated by sunlight. The photoreceptors in our eyes pick up on sunlight, which controls the release of melatonin and all these other neurotransmitters that dictate your energy levels throughout the day.

You have a peak moment of awakeness during the morning. After lunch you usually have a glucose spike, especially if you have a big heavy lunch, like a cheeseburger. That glucose spike combined with a circadian dip gives you a period of fatigue between around 2 and 4pm. You’ll then have another spike in alertness right before dinner, and then you’ll start getting tired again closer to bedtime. That’s your 24-hour circadian rhythm, basically.

Then there’s also something called “chronobiology.” You actually have genes that dictate whether you’re a morning person or an evening person.


If you wake up in the middle of the night (say, to go to the bathroom) but get back to sleep quickly, does that screw around with your sleep quality?

It varies. There’s no clear answer. In studies, Prof. Gartenberg plays really loud sounds that people have no conscious awareness of at all.  We can play a sound literally at 70 decibels, which is like someone screaming, and that’ll wake them up briefly and then they’ll go right back into the sleep stage that they were in. Other times you can get a full awakening, and you’ll have to go through the


How is society changing our relationship with sleep? What will be the consequences of this?

Gallup has reported that over the past 50 years, we’re sleeping a whole hour less per night than we did in the 1950s. That’s a lot. A lot of that has to do with having TV on all the time, and mobile phones are taking it to the next level. Prog. Gartenberg goes on to add, “ I think the biggest issue right now is the lack of work/life balance.


What are some tips for getting a better sleep?

You want a cold, quiet environment with no light: That’s basically the ideal way to improve your sleep quality. However, people have a different ideal sound, light, and temperature environment to improve their sleep quality. We need stimulus control: You want to save the bedroom for sleep and sex.

  • SOUND: We focus on sound a lot. Quiet environments are going to improve your sleep quality. Your brain has these micro arousals throughout the night without you being consciously aware of it—even an air-conditioning unit turning on wakes up your brain. So blocking out noises is a low-hanging fruit to improve your sleep quality.
  • TEMPERATURE: This is a big problem, especially if you have a sleep partner. Everyone has different natural body temperatures, and usually men run hotter than women, but it can go either way. That can be a big issue if you have a different body temperature, because then no one’s happy
  • LIGHT: The other thing is no blue light close to bedtime. There are a lot of studies that screentime close to bed is bad.   If you live in the city and there’s bright lights at night, having blackout shade can also be super useful.
  • STRESS: When you’re stressed, your flight-or-fight response is active during the night, and your sleep quality is going to be shallow  One of the things Prof. Gartenberg recommends to people who have a racing mind and worrying thoughts about work is to segment a time to get it out during the day —encapsulate it in a little mental box so you’re not laying down in bed and just having your mind race about all these things.


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About the Authors
  • Rick Popowitz

    Rick Popowitz, founder and President/CEO of Biocentric Health. For the past 25 years he's been actively interested in alternative health and nutrition.