Even though sleep is a universal human need, with everybody requiring an average of eight hours of sleep, there are substantial differences between the ways that different people sleep, the amount of sleep that each person actually needs, and the way that sleep (or lack thereof) impacts them. Some of these differences are just an inborn variation similar to a personality type, with no known explanation for why people are the way they are. Some are age related, some are based upon gender. It is important to remember that these biologically-driven traits are not something to be judgmental about - there is no right or wrong way to sleep, unless it is having an impact on your health.
Age-Related Sleep Differences
One of the most accurate predictors of how much sleep a person gets, or the way in which they get their sleep, is their age. Newborns sleep nearly all the time, and in a way that is completely independent of the external cues that the rest of the world adheres to in terms of school or work schedules, daytime, night time or meal time. But by the time they have reached about half a year old, most babies will have developed a schedule that involves mostly night time sleeping, with an average of eight hours per day being spent while sleeping. Most young children will nap a few times during the day until they eventually grow out of the need for this and stay awake in the familiar sixteen hours up/eight hours asleep pattern.
The teenage years serve as a notable disruption to this trend. Teenagers seem to have excess energy that prohibits them from tiring at the same time that the rest of the world does. As a result they stay up later in the evening – and if they are able to they sleep later the next day. Unfortunately, school and other responsibilities may get in the way, which leaves many teens sleep-deprived.
Senior citizens also are prone to sleep cycles that are at odds from the rest of society. Inverse to the excess energy found in teens, older folks tend to tire earlier, and go to bed a couple of hours earlier than the rest of the world. As a result, they also wake up earlier or in the middle of the night. This disrupted or out-of-sync sleep can be a cause for distress.
Gender-Related Sleep Differences
Men are from Mars, women from Venus … how many times have we heard this? In addition to all of the frequently-mentioned differences between the sexes, you can add on sleep. Women tend to go to bed at an earlier hour than men. They have more trouble falling asleep and – given the opportunity – they will sleep longer. More women have troubles with insomnia than men do, and this may be caused by variances in hormones that accompany their menstrual cycle. Studies have shown that women sleep best early in their menstrual month, right after they have their period. This is probably because their estrogen is higher and progesterone is lower. But as the month progresses and progesterone levels raise, so does its sedative impact and women often complain of being sluggish. Much of the problem that comes with sleep immediately before the period starts is probably related to the other discomforting aspects that precede the period. Once bloating, cramps and mood shifts abate, satisfying sleep often returns.
Early vs. Late Risers
Perhaps the most confounding difference between people’s sleep cycles is that of early risers vs. late risers. Two people who both go to sleep at the same time at night and who get the same amount and quality of sleep can wake up with completely different levels of energy, with one hitting their stride early, being full of boundless energy immediately upon waking, and the other being slow to start and not at peak efficiency until much later into the day.
Morning people generally bounce out of bed after a full night’s sleep. They rarely need to set an alarm to wake at the same time each day, and they are usually in a good mood early. These are the people who you see driving to work before rush-hour, hard at work at their desks or vacuuming their homes shortly after the sun rises. At the other extreme you’ll find those who are often referred to as night owls. These people tend to need an alarm and then hit the snooze button repeatedly once it goes off. They struggle to wake up; as students they are the ones that are often late to school or sitting with their heads on their desks, and as adults they tend to do better in jobs that don’t require early morning meetings or a nine-to-five schedule at all. They tend to hit the peak of their energy levels and creativity at the same time that others begin winding down. Though societal norms tend to favor the early risers, the differences between the two seem to be biologically based, and not necessarily something that can be controlled or to which laziness or indolence should be attributed.
Most conversations about sleep that take place in the United States refer to the 16-hours awake/eight-hours asleep cycle that is most common in North America; when we encounter periods within our circadian cycles in which we become drowsy we tend to drink coffee or do something to wake us up and keep us from getting drowsy, but it is important to realize that certain cultures around the world have developed alternatives – namely, the siesta. Siesta times are common in Latin and Spanish cultures – people take naps during the drowsiest times of day, allowing them to awake refreshed and finish their work with more energy. The siesta does not add more sleeping hours – it just shortens the amount of time that they sleep during the evening, and it has grown in popularity to become the norm in areas of Asia and Africa as well.