How many hours of sleep do you need during the workweek? Six hours? Maybe seven? It’s an age-old debate, but with more women in the workforce than ever before, the conversation is worth revisiting.
Especially because research shows that sleep deprivation can actually cause parts of the brain’s synapses to be “eaten” by other brain cells. That's according to a somewhat new study by researchers at the Marche Polytechnic University in Italy. Lead researcher Michele Bellesi analyzed the brains of mice that had been separated into four groups. The first group was left to sleep for six to eight hours, the second was periodically woken up from sleep, the third was kept awake for an extra eight hours and the last group was kept awake for five days straight. Bellesi found that astrocytes — abundant glial cells in the brain that clean out worn-out cells and debris so electric impulses can be transferred smoothly between neurons (get all that?) — were more active when the mice had been deprived of sleep. So, they broke down more of the brain’s connections than necessary.
“We show for the first time that portions of synapses are literally eaten by astrocytes because of sleep loss,” Bellesi told New Scientist.
Perhaps more disconcerting, however, is that microglial brain cells, which account for around 15 percent of all brain cells, were also more active for the mice that’d experienced chronic sleep deprivation. The problem? Science has already proven that sustained microglial activation has been observed in Alzheimer’s and other neurological disorders.
But serious neurological disorders aside, we also just need sleep to survive the work day and feel good. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has called lack of sleep a health problem for good reason. Diet, exercise, mental health and physical health all affect our ability to sleep, and in return, our ability to perform at our absolute best.
That said, six hours seems like enough. And science says so, too. "Results from one study impress just how bad a cumulative lack of sleep can be on performance," reads one Fast Company article. "Subjects in a lab-based sleep study who were allowed to get only six hours of sleep a night for two weeks straight functioned as poorly as those who were forced to stay awake for two days straight. The kicker is the people who slept six hours per night thought they were doing just fine."
The article is referring to this sleep deprivation study, published in the journal Sleep, which took 48 adults and restricted their sleep to a maximum of four, six and eight hours a night for two weeks — and one was deprived of sleep for three days straight.
I surveyed 42 women of all ages to understand how much sleep they get and how much sleep they need to perform well at work. The majority indicated they get seven hours of sleep on average each workweek night. That said, seven to eight hours seems to be the sweet spot. Although, some people need more sleep and some need less.
These findings align with the sleep duration recommendations published by the National Sleep Foundation in 2015. After a thorough study, the Foundation recommends “seven to nine hours” of sleep for adults between the ages of 18 and 64, but suggests six to 11 hours may be appropriate depending on the individual. In addition to what’s recommended, the Foundation does not recommend adults get less than six hours of sleep.
Have you ever contemplated why we sleep? We need sleep to repair the damage being awake does to our mind and body. That’s according to Matthew Walker, who is a professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California, Berkeley and the author of “Why We Sleep”. In a mind-blowing video published by Business Insider, Walker says, “Wakefulness essentially is low-level brain damage.” He details why a lack of sleep increases our chances of developing diseases like dementia and cancer, and how the “global experiment” of daylight savings time is linked to a “24 percent increase in heart attacks.” Like I said, mind-blowing. An article published by Everyday Health describes the side effects of sleep deprivation specifically in women, including irritability, stress and negative emotions, like feeling “hopeless.”
I spoke with Gail Cirlin-Lazerus, a mother, and child and family therapist. Sleep deprivation’s impact on women is something she sees nearly everyday. She said, “The demands on women, especially mothers and working mothers, are intense. Sleep deprivation in women is common and can be devastating on their mental health. Women have the expectation to do it all and do it well. There is a societal double standard as well as an overall lack of understanding and support.”
Patricia Lowenwirth, a teaching assistant, agreed. She said: “Regardless of how advanced we think we have become with equality, the fact remains that women do most of the child rearing. And if you have a couple working full time trying to raise children, the brunt of the traditional ‘home work’ usually falls on the mom. I can only imagine what it must be like to stay on top of everything a child (or children) needs as well as manage a career. That is one of the reasons I stayed home. Without help, it is impossible to do both perfectly. Something will suffer.”
Emily DiGennaro, a veterinary receptionist, told me she needs eight hours of sleep each night, but only gets five hours. She shared: “I tend to overthink at night, which keeps me up. My 3-year-old has also been getting up a lot during the night in the past couple of months and keeps me awake. There are simply not enough hours in the day to work full time, take care of a home and family, and get the appropriate amount of sleep.”
It’s important to recognize sleep deprivation is not solely common in working mothers. Work demands alone cause women to suffer from this problem. Marie Zoscak, an operations manager, attributed a lack of sleep to work burnout: “For me, I think it was being burned out from my full-time job, but also my part-time job teaching classes at the gym. I was picking up a bunch of gym classes after work and some early morning, plus having to cook dinner and things when I get home, so it was hard to get a lot of sleep.”
Sofia Tokar, a web writer, talked about pulling “all-nighters” in college. She has since improved her time management skills, which is helping her avoid sleep deprivation now that she’s back in graduate school.
Denise Sabo, a mother and human resources executive, noted “long hours” and a “long commute” prevent her from getting the eight hours of sleep she needs. She said, “I travel a lot and support a global team, so I work across time zones. Typically, I have to problem solve at off hours.”
Although, the pressure we feel to perform does not always come from our employer. Carissa Seidenfrau, a sales account manager, shared: “We are always thinking about the next day or week ahead and it keeps us from resting. I don’t think my place of employment puts this pressure on me. I think it’s a pressure I put on myself.” Karen Richardson, a bookkeeper, summed up this feeling in three words: “an overactive mind.”
Melanie O’Donnell, a product manager, thought: “Perhaps we overextend ourselves.” And perhaps she’s right. In an article on LinkedIn, Gabriella van Rij, Chief Executive Officer of Shifting Perceptions, Corp., wrote, “Women especially feel that unless they are the perfect mother, wife, employee, or boss, they have failed.” She continued, “One of the main problems here is that women often feel the need to over promise and over deliver to make sure we are seen as valuable to the workplace. But that comes with a price… Because we are not super human. There is only so much a person can do before you reach your limit.”
Looking back on my conversations there seemed to be a common belief that there’s not enough coffee in the world to fuel women to live up to the expectations they have at work and home. It turns out too much coffee is a contributing factor of poor sleep. Several women who I spoke to indicated caffeine prevents them from sleeping well. Tokar shared: “I generally don’t drink more than my one morning cup of coffee” because coffee in the afternoon can keep her up late.
Whether 6 hours of sleep is enough or not, a solid sleep routine is critical. Yet, there is no one-size-fits-all formula. Jennifer McNamara, a veterinary technician, opts for reading or crossword puzzles before bed, while Zoscak watches an hour of TV. Helen Lowenwirth, a healthcare administrator, said: “If I am not in bed by 10 p.m. I know I am going to be in trouble. At 9 p.m., I prepare what I am going to wear in the morning, turn off my TV and phone, read, and then fall asleep.” Also, several women indicated daily exercise aids their sleep, including Heather Vokes, who is a teacher.
The age-old debate will continue, but as we evolve, so will our sleep. Cirlin-Lazerus shared: “My sleep needs drastically changed after having kids. I used to need much more, and through the years I have learned to live on much less sleep. My key is unwinding after the kids go to bed and I finish what I need to do (work-wise and household-wise). I have also practiced progressive relaxation for years, as falling asleep was not always easy for me, but now it’s become automatic for me as soon as I hit the pillow.”
Some advice to part with: Try to maintain a consistent bedtime somehow, someway; don’t look at electronic screens at least 30 minutes before bed — your phone, computer, television, iPad, anything at all; decrease your alcohol intake (alcohol makes many people sleepy, but it can also decrease the quality and duration of sleep); and get enough exercise.
Other advice, according to the National Sleep Foundation, is to lose excess weight you might be carrying around. That's because sleep apnea and obesity have a very high correlation, and obese workers already suffer from more lost productive time than normal weight and overweight workers.
If nothing works against insufficient sleep, you may want to consider sleep medicine to better regulate your sleep-wake cycle and treat your sleep disorder. It will help you fall asleep and combat poor sleep once you do. There are also sleep apps.
As improbable as it may sound, there is a such thing as too much sleep, too. It can pose some health risks, and people who sleep too much (again, this varies depending on the person) may have a higher risk for mortality. Pay attention to your internal body clock. If you've slept enough (but not too much) you should feel alert through most of the day and ready for bed at a fairly consistent time every night.
Are you sleeping enough? How many hours of sleep per night do you get? Set that alarm clock and good luck!
Kristen Farrell is a professional communicator who previously worked in human resources. She shares career lessons and everyday experiences on her blog: kristen-farrell.com. When she’s not writing, you’ll find her running, crafting, or spending time with her husband, Jonathan and cat, Trotsky.