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Chasing sleep, how much is enough?

My daughter Jessie got married.

The wedding chores and festivities went on for what seemed like a week. No, wait. It was a week.

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It was beautiful, she was beautiful. And I was completely exhausted when it was over.

The night after throwing a morning-after brunch for 45, I slept for 14 hours. I slept for 14 hours the next night, too. Followed by a pair of 12-hour nights. I wasn't sure I would ever feel rested again.

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So sleep has been on my mind. When would I have had enough sleep? How much sleep is enough sleep?

Sleep has been on the mind of scientists as well. As they do with diet and exercise, scientists continue to try to understand the right numbers and the right combinations that will keep us healthy.

In a study in the journal Sleep, researchers report that the optimal amount of sleep is 7.6 hours for women and 7.8 hours for men. This is the amount needed to prevent you from missing work for sleep-related illnesses, according to their report.

The study was based on sleep reports from 3,760 Finnish citizens, who live where the sun never sets in the summer and never shines in winter, so I am not sure we can learn very much from their sleep habits.

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"But I like those numbers," said Dr. David Neubauer, who studies sleep at Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center. "But I am biased toward that 8-hour recommendation."

He believes we should give ourselves the opportunity to sleep that long each night. "If we sleep less, OK," he said. "At least we had the opportunity to get eight hours."

Sadly, we don't make that mark. Americans report averaging less than seven hours. It appears that, in the week following Jessie's beautiful wedding, I slept enough for, like, nine people.

"We tend to lead sleep-deprived lives," said Dr. Neubauer. "Even relatively small amounts [of sleep deprivation] can affect our decision-making and our mood."

Those of us who find sleepiness triggered by the setting of the sun and wakefulness triggered by sunrise often dread winter, when bedtime feels like it should happen at 4:30 p.m. and when there is no early dawn to wake us.

Aging creates its own issues with sleep. Just as teenagers are biologically wired to go to bed later and sleep later, Dr. Neubauer said, older Americans are wired to go to bed long before the 11 o'clock news and to wake before the sun.

None of us is immune to the 24/7 pace of life. Even in retirement we will feel its vibrations in our children's lives and in the lives of our younger friends. But the worries that nag us as we age — What has my life meant? Will my money last as long as I do? Are the kids OK? — make us feel, what Next Avenue health writer Jeanne Dorin called "existential exhaustion." No amount of sleep will cure that.

Likewise, Jane Hu, writing for Slate.com, talks about "decision fatigue." When there are too many choices, or too many decisions to be made, we can feel the energy drain right out of us. The same is true, she writes, of the effort to maintain self-control. It is all just exhausting.

"There is a difference between getting enough sleep and being able to get enough sleep," Dr. Neubauer said. The decision to stay up to watch David Letterman's monologue or to give in to the nagging cares of the day — these things compete with our personal sleep cycle. While it appears, he said, that eight hours is a good number, "huge parts of the population are getting six."

"I like to preach the importance of sleep to overall wellness," he said. "It is a triad. It is not just diet and exercise. Poor sleep can undermine the potential benefits of both of those."

We have all heard the tips for a good night's sleep. Cool room, no electronics, no caffeine after 3 p.m., not a lot of alcohol, don't exercise just before bed, avoid long naps during the day.

But it might also help to identify the gremlins inside our minds — and put them to rest, too.

Susan Reimer's column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at sreimer@baltsun.com and @SusanReimer on Twitter.com.

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