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Does everyone really need 8 hours of sleep? Not exactly

Blame your genes if you still feel tired after eight hours of sleep.

sleep-mask
Sarah Mitroff/CNET

Are you the friend who burns the candle at both ends or the friend who, on an ideal day, would spend 10 hours in bed? Neither is right or wrong, and one isn't better than the other -- they're just different, and both are equally valid. 

If you've always felt the need to sleep more than the oft-recommended eight hours per night, you might wonder why you need so much sleep when others can attack the day on just five to six hours of rest. In this article, experts explain why some people need less sleep than others.

Read moreThe best sleep masks for 2020

How much sleep do people really need? 

Sleep recommendations are like water recommendations. No one really knows exactly how much water people need each day, so there's no single "best" recommendation -- the same is true for sleep. 

While most sleep experts recommend seven to nine hours each night, Annie Miller, a therapist at DC Metro Sleep and Psychotherapy, tells CNET that people shouldn't feel pressured by this number. "Historically, one uninterrupted period of sleep was not always the standard," she says. (Historians and anthropologists think humans used to engage in biphasic sleep, or sleeping in two "shifts.")

The origins of the eight-hour ideal remain unclear, but post-industrial standardization of school and work schedules is likely to blame. Regardless, the need to conform to this standard "has certainly contributed to many people's insomnia," Miller says. "If we feel like we 'should' be getting more sleep or we aren't doing it right, our sleep will suffer."

Related: Not getting enough sleep? How sleep deprivation wrecks your body

Do some people need less sleep? 

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If you don't mind working late at night, you might naturally be a short sleeper.

Getty Images

Some people might scoff when others say they only need four to six hours of sleep each night, but for a percentage of the population, that's the truth, says Dr. Allison Brager, Ph.D, performance engineer for Momentous

Generally, high achievers tend to sleep less, Brager tells CNET. "If you look at US presidents, successful CEOs and military leaders, many report sleeping little but feeling fine and don't need stimulants to stay awake," she says. "Daily sleep needs fall along the bell curve like most physiological processes in nature. The average is eight hours of nightly sleep, but there are individuals who fall to the left or right due to genetic underpinnings."

Scientists actually discovered a "short-sleep gene" in 2019. People with this gene naturally sleep less than 6.5 hours each night "without any apparent ill effects," the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports. This discovery is, of course, a small piece of the big sleep puzzle, but it does prove that sleep needs are highly individual and influenced by genetics.

Related: How to know if you have insomnia and what to do about it

Do some people need more sleep?

On the flip side, some people need extra sleep to function optimally. While there's no evidence (yet) of a "long-sleep gene" like there is of the short-sleep one, Miller says she wouldn't be surprised to hear about such a discovery in the future. "Our sleep need is largely based on genetics," she says, so it would make sense. 

You don't need a study to tell you how much sleep you need, though. Most adults know how much sleep they need to feel refreshed and energized. If you feel your best with 9 to 10 hours of sleep versus 7 to 8, then you should sleep that much whenever time allows, Miller says. 

Related: Sleep supplements can help you snooze, but they aren't a cure for bad sleep

Sleep needs change over your lifespan

Another factor worth considering is your age, Miller says. Sleep needs change over the course of your lifespan. According to the National Sleep Foundation, those needs are: 

  • Newborns (0-3 months): 14 to 17 hours per day
  • Infants (4-11 months): 12 to 15 hours per day
  • Toddlers (1-2 years): 11 to 14 hours per day
  • Preschoolers (3-5): 10 to 13 hours 
  • School age children (6-13): 9 to 11 hours 
  • Teenagers (14-17): 8 to 10 hours
  • Younger adults (18-25): 7 to 9 hours
  • Adults (26-64): 7 to 9 hours
  • Older adults (65 and older): 7 to 8 hours

Other factors that affect how much sleep you need

People dealing with chronic illnesses, autoimmune conditions or other medical problems may need more sleep than others. If you have a highly laborious job, such as construction work, you might need more sleep than someone who works a desk job, simply because your body needs more time to recover. Similarly, athletes prioritize sleep and most probably sleep more than the average person because their lifestyle and career depend on it.

In the end, "It's important to focus on what feels good for our bodies, not what we think we should be doing," Miller says. 

Related: We're all sleeping worse because of COVID-19, study shows

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.