Think You Need Eight Hours Sleep? You’re Wrong

Think You Need Eight Hours Sleep? You’re Wrong

The notion that eight hours sleep is essential to health is widely repeated, but — as we’ve noted before — fails to take into account that individual requirements vary. Something else you probably didn’t know: the idea that we need a long continuous period of sleep is a relatively modern innovation.

Picture by Phil & Pam Gradwell

Stephanie Hegarty at the BBC World Service highlights a wealth of evidence which suggests that a “segmented sleeping pattern” — where people would sleep for four hours or so, be awake for a couple of hours and then sleep again — was very much the norm up until at least 1700. Note that this didn’t necessarily mean being highly active during the interim “waking” period; it might simply mean reading, meditating or enjoying the attentions of someone else in the same bed.

Oddly enough, a major factor in the change was the emergence of lighting both in public places and in the home. When resting hours were entirely dictated by whether there was natural light, there was more time in total for “relaxing” without necessarily sleeping. Once it was possible to be active at night, it also become more practical to concentrate sleep in one burst.

The practical upshot? Stressing because you wake up in the middle of the night before dropping off again isn’t sensible. For more advice on sleeping, check out our top 10 tips for better sleep.

The myth of the eight-hour sleep [BBC News]


  • Frankly I find that hard to believe.
    In “modern” times, for the vast majority, life would have been hard toil in a field somewhere for the entire period of daylight, by which stage when night time hit, you’d head home for a (meagre) meal and sleep like a log.
    Only the rich folk would have had time and energy to relax and sleep in spurts.

    In pre-modern times (ie hunter gatherers), it might have been possible to relax a bit more if you got lucky and had plenty of food around.

  • The practical upshot? Stressing because you wake up in the middle of the night before dropping off again isn’t sensible

    Yeah but what about those of us that can’t actually get to sleep in the first place?

  • Yes, you do need eight hours sleep. This is basically a milder form of polyphasic sleep patterns which have been proven to dramatically decrease cognitive function. Not to mention if you’re at the gym regularly – which should be everyone – you need your sleep even more for recovery.

  • No, you don’t need eight hours sleep. You need enough sleep for you personally to be able to function & be healthy. Some people function on 8 hours, some function on 7 hours, some on 6.

    • Exactly. Saying everyone needs eight hours of sleep is like saying everyone should drink two litres of water per day. That might work for some people, but we’re all different!

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