Conventional wisdom tells us that we need eight hours of quality sleep per night for greater health and well-being, but is that really true? An arbitrary time allotment for one of our body’s most important functions seems downright silly. We are all individuals with different needs. Are we too hung up on how many Zzz’s we need?

Eight Hours: A Magic Number?

Who started the eight hours of sleep rule anyway? While the origins are uncertain, it could be speculated that this custom developed around the time of the Industrial Revolution. Once we started leaving rural life behind to work in cities, we no longer gauged sleep by sundown and sunup.

Clocks, schedules and shifts became the norm. Why not just compartmentalize the day into eight hours of work, eight hours of sleep and eight hours or personal time? Sounds logical—but is it really?

Regardless of the number of sleep hours you need, do your best to make the most of them. It’s quality not quantity that counts.

Today we are long past the Industrial Revolution and are will into the swing of the Technological Revolution. We are no longer subject to standard schedules. Today our schedules are twenty-four hours, seven days a week! While that’s great for productivity it can be a disaster for sleep.

Another clue to the eight-hour myth comes from surveys conducted many years ago about young adults and their sleep habits. Many reported sleeping between seven and eight hours during the workweek and between eight and nine hours on weekends. Somehow this was averaged as eight hours and stuck in peoples’ minds. The rest is sleep history.

Biological Clocks Not Time Clocks

So let’s put aside those artificial time clocks in favor of the human biological clock. First of all consider your individual sleep needs. While your friends may be up late watching Conan or Jay Leno, you might find it difficult to make it to the 10 o’clock news. That’s perfectly okay!

Everyone’s needs are unique. As for time, eight hours might be perfect for you or you find that your body functions better on six or ten. You may also find that some nights you need more sleep than others. That’s normal too. We are so accustomed to having the eight-hour mantra in our heads that we forget to listen to our own bodies. Take back your power and listen to your own body’s wisdom.

Another myth that has been perpetuated over the years is sleeping straight through or uninterrupted. We’ve been conditioned to think that waking up in the middle of the night is bad or dysfunctional. That only leads us to feel anxiety about our “problem” and leads to more sleeplessness.

Research indicates that this mid sleep awakening is actually common and quite normal. Roger Ekirch, Virginia Tech professor, while studying the history of the night, found strange references to something called first sleep and second sleep.

Subsequent studies and research found that in the absence of artificial lights, most people exhibited a similar patter of sleeping, then waking for a few hours and falling back to sleep. This “segmented sleep” is natural. So if you find yourself waking during the middle of the night for a while, don’t assume something must be wrong.

Making the Most of Sleep Time

Regardless of the number of sleep hours you need, do your best to make the most of them. It’s quality not quantity that counts. Studies have shown that even as little as thirty minutes of deep sleep can increase brain function and overall health. So don’t feel guilty for that lazy afternoon nap!

Ensure that your bedroom is set up for optimal sleep. Maintain a comfortable temperature and keep it dark. Begin to wind down physically and mentally before going to sleep. Avoid too much activity, caffeine and TV and computer time about an hour before bed. Try some prayer or meditation before retiring too.

When it comes to sleep, eight hours of uninterrupted sleep may sound like the standard, but listening to your own body is the best advice. Here’s to pleasant dreams!