Does everyone need the same amount of sleep to function?

27 Mar 2019

We’ll be the first ones to raise our hands and say we’ve been screaming and shouting for people to get at least 8 hours of sleep per night, and if you’re really well-behaved, start those hours around 10 pm. But in the wake of Sleep Awareness Week earlier this month, Professor Adrian Williams of the London Sleep Centre said that actually, the number of hours of sleep we need to get in order to function the following day is quite varied, and has much to do with genes and heritage.

Some people will be binging on carbs, coffee, warm drinks and emotional chit-chat following a night of under 8 hours of shut eyes. While others can run from meeting to meeting and be at their most creative selves on just 6 hours. And as jealous as those reliant on lengthy-sleep can be, they must remember that each one of us is guided by the ticking of a different clock.

In a recent Evening Standard article, Rosie Fitzmaurice writes that apparently, Theresa May and Richard Branson have admitted to only needing 6 or 5 hours of sleep a night in order to feel refreshed, while Donald Trump (granted he is not an awe-inspiring example of lucidity and rationale), claims he toughs through the days of his Presidency with between 3 to 4 hours of sleep a night. Tom Ford, according to the article, the meticulously neat fashion designer, sleeps an average of 2 hours a night.

It’s true that the thought of going into work having slept a mere 2 hours might bring a large majority of us to the brink of a bathroom breakdown – the fact that some people are capable of it, and even more so, chose to live by this, is proof that we don’t all speak the same language of sleep.


Some of us, to use the terms of Williams, have a ‘morningness’ to us, while others have an ‘eveningness’. And knowing which one you belong to is probably as easy as one, two, three. Your body would have told you this long ago. If your brain only begins to shake off its morning blurriness towards the late afternoon then ‘eveningness’ is second nature to you. If your brain feels like mash potato by 6 p, then you know that ‘morningness’ is where you belong. In the very same nature, if you can function on little sleep and in fact thrive on this habit, then you carry genes that allow you to do so. But there are ways to shape these habits over time, especially when you begin to consider how light impacts these behaviours.


When speaking about shifting our sleep habits in an interview with the Evening Standard Williams says that “You can influence the timing of your body clock using exposure to light. Morning light is the establishing factor in determining circadian rhythms, if you get up earlier and are exposed to light earlier, you tend to go to sleep earlier. If an evening person was rigorous enough it is possible to shift your body clock forward.” But before you get too excited about the thought, Williams is quick to add that “the trouble is these always revert back to the normal way your body is programmed.”


Okay so while most of us are still reliant on spending one-third of our lives sleeping (and happily so), and others are galloping around on half of that time worth of sleep, it is worth noting that this is a mixture of genes and habits. Attempting to shift this pattern, for whatever reason you may have – a night-shift job, children, new training or a demanding job – must be done with awareness to light intake and carefully do so in a responsible way. But until then, to follow the lines of Professor Willaims, consider sticking to how your clock ticks.