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27 Sep 2023

The deep need for sleep


Nothing beats a good sleep. Just ask your friendly neighbourhood bear, who spends a significant part of the year in slumber mode. With humans the need for sleep definitely deepens. Particularly for health and wellbeing. 

Sleep is an altered state of consciousness where we have limited interactions with our surroundings. It is when we are relatively quiet and still (depending on the stage of sleep such as (REM – rapid eye movement). In contrast to this seemingly peaceful state, the brain is very active during sleep, carrying out many important functions (researchers often describe this as the brain doing its cleaning and filing while we sleep).

Sleep is essential to every process in the body, affecting our physical and mental functioning the next and following days, our ability to fight disease and develop immunity, our metabolism and chronic disease risk; these are just some of our bodily processes dependent on enough quality sleep.

Sleep is truly interdisciplinary because it has a bearing on virtually every aspect of our being.
Most healthy adults need at least 7 hours of quality sleep each night. In addition to age, other factors can affect how many hours of sleep you need. For example:

  • Sleep quality. The quality of your sleep is just as important as the quantity. If your sleep is frequently interrupted, you may not be getting quality sleep (e.g. being woken by the altered awake and sleep cycles of a spouse / partner / house mate with dementia).
  • Previous sleep deprivation. If you're sleep deprived, the amount of sleep you need increases. The worry of not getting enough sleep can cause even more difficulty getting to sleep and staying asleep.
  • Health conditions. Some health conditions change hormone levels or other bodily functions, and/or cause physical discomfort; any of these can result in poor sleep quality.
  • Ageing. Older adults need about the same amount of sleep as younger adults. As you get older, however, sleeping patterns frequently change. Older adults tend to sleep more lightly, take longer to start sleeping, and sleep for shorter time spans than do younger adults. Sleeping lighter means older adults become more aware that they wake up multiple times during the night; they may worry about this (research shows adults of all ages wake multiple times per night, but generally younger and mid-life adults are not aware of it).

Health Benefits from quality sleep

  • Get sick less often.
  • Stay at a healthy weight.
  • Lower the risk for serious health problems, like diabetes and heart disease.
  • Reduce stress and improve mood.
  • Think more clearly and do better in personal and even professional pursuits.
  • Get along better with people—especially your family and whānau.


Sleeping in New Zealand

Results from a major health survey reveal that most New Zealanders reported having optimal sleep duration (7 to <9 hours, 58%), but more than a third reported having short sleep duration (<7 hours, 37%), and 4.5% reported long sleep duration ≥ 9 hours (Sleep duration and psychological well-being among New Zealanders, CH Lee, 2019).

Compared to optimal sleep, short sleepers consistently showed negative relationships with various measures of positive psychological well-being (e.g., self-esteem or life satisfaction) independent of a broad range of demographic, health, and personality factors. Research shows neuroticism consistently foreshadows poor sleep quality, delayed, and interrupted sleep, and does so over and above demographic factors (Cellini et al., 2017; Duggan et al., 2014; Stephen et al., 2018). Whereas, long sleep was only associated with an increased likelihood of depression.

People who do not sleep enough, or have many wide awake periods during the night, may have a higher risk of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, and stroke. Māori and Pacific peoples showed particularly high rates of being short sleepers, the correlation of such with their population rates of obesity, diabetes etc are part of studies; as the interrelationships are complex.

People with concerns about the quality of their sleep and/or the effects of the quantity of their sleep are advised to discuss this with their health care provider; many solutions are available and several of those do not involve taking sleeping pills.

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Published: September 2023

To be reviewed: September 2026