Sleep experts debunk 10 sleep myths
There’s a lot of misinformation circulating about the best way to sleep, so we asked sleep experts to debunk some of the most common slumber-related myths.
Each myths is debunked by a PhD postdoctoral research fellow at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School and a professor of medicine at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, running the research program in sleep.
Watching TV in bed is a good way to relax before sleep – MYTH
This is not something recommended, because if you turn the television on and it’s close to you, it’s a source of bright blue-light. Bright light is one of the strongest cues to our circadian rhythm. It kick start our brain and our body, to become awake and alert in the morning. It’s called a zeitgeber, the strongest input to that circadian – the awake phase of our rhythm.
Drinking alcohol before bed will improve your sleep – MYTH
This is a very commonly used tactic for people who have trouble sleeping, and they have a drink. It’s a drug. It’s very much like a sleeping pill. And, it is true that it will help you get to sleep, as long as you don’t drink too much (i.e. one or two drinks perhaps). However, what this is doing is disrupting the normal sleep. It suppresses REM sleep, which is a normal part of your sleep that comes on a little while after you go to sleep, typically 30-60 minutes later.
When the alcohol has finally gotten out of your system, the REM comes back at perhaps the wrong time, perhaps too strong, and it disrupts things.
With this in mind, it’s not generally recommended that alcohol be used as a sleeping pill.
Lying in bed with your eyes closed is almost as good as sleeping – MYTH
This myth is definitely incorrect. Sleep is a very specific process that your body goes through.
The most common myth that was removed from the scientific field around 50 years ago was that sleep was like taking your car, putting it in the garage, turning off the key and leaving it there. Then you return the next morning and it is parked as it was.
Sleep is in fact nothing like this at all. Sleep is a very active process. When you go to sleep you enter one stage. A little while later you enter another stage. It gets progressively deeper. You then have the REM sleep (see below), and then you wake up momentarily. That whole cycle takes an hour or so, and then it starts again, and it happens three to five times in a night.
If you disrupt any of that, something happens, and the next morning you feel it. You don’t feel rested.
So when you’re lying in bed, none of that is happening. If your eyes are closed and you’re not asleep, it just doesn’t count.
What is REM sleep?
Your first REM cycle of the night begins about 90 minutes after you fall asleep and recurs every 90 minutes. Your eyes move around quickly behind your eyelids and your brainwaves look similar to those of someone who is awake. Your breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure rise to near-waking levels.
REM sleep, often referred to as stage 5, is when you are most likely to dream.
Your arms and legs become temporarily paralyzed during this stage to prevent you from physically acting out your dreams.
If you can’t sleep, you should stay in bed and try to fall back asleep – MYTH
If you don’t fall asleep, it’s recommended that you don’t stretch it out and stress yourself out by just trying. And there’s likely nothing that can prevent sleep as well as, “I’ve gotto go to sleep. I’ve gotto go to sleep. I’ve gotto go to sleep. I need to!” You can feel your pulse and bloody pressure going up.
So what you should try to do if you have this problem is exactly the opposite to this myth. Which is, if you can’t sleep, you should NOT stay in bed and try to fall back asleep.
You should try to relax, just don’t worry about it. Stay in bed for a little while and see what happens. But don’t try to go to sleep, just relax. And if you can’t relax, and don’t go to sleep, it’s probably better to get up so that you don’t associate the bed with a stressful situation.
Many adults need five hours of sleep or less – MYTH
There are scores of epidemiological data and data from the sleep lab to show that five hours is not enough for the vast majority of adults. There may be some individuals that can do OK on 6 hours of sleep, but less than six hours is a myth.
This has been somewhat of a real problem that the ‘sleep field’ has been trying to address, being that – not sleeping is sometimes perceived as a macho or ‘I’m so busy’ thing. It shouldn’t be. Sleeping is actually a good thing.
Whilst you might hear people brag about this, saying “Oh I only need 5 hours of sleep and I’m fine”, but by and large these people will generally make up for lost sleep on the weekends, or have afternoon / power naps.
For the vast majority of us, the recommendation is seven to eight hours of sleep each night.
You brain and body will adapt to less sleep – MYTH
This is a myth. Just like good nutrition or a health diet is so important, we similarly have a diet that we need for our brains and our bodies to be at their best.
There are formal studies that have tested how people perform with lack of sleep, and how they think they are performing. And these studies reveal that we are really lousy at saying how sleepy we are. So you know you feel bad when you haven’t had enough sleep, but you actually have no idea how bad you are, and your performance keeps deteriorating the more you don’t sleep – or restrict your sleep over multiple days – and you think, “Oh, I’ve settled in. I had a little headache but I’m doing great.” But what actually is happening is you’re performing less and less well on various things (that can be tested) such as driving simulators. You’re actually falling asleep for three of four seconds continuously without even knowing it.
It doesn’t matter what time of day you sleep – MYTH
If you look at our biology, we have a clock inside our brain – which is set to say “this is a good time to sleep”. And then at another time it says, “this is a good time to be out.” Sleep is timed. It just doesn’t happen. And even if you don’t sleep for the whole night, you’ll be more and more sleepy all night long. But in the morning you’ll get a second wind, and that’s because the clock says, “Up, time to be up. It doesn’t matter that you didn’t sleep, it’s time to be up.”
Often the problem is that people think that they can get away with things that our biology just won’t let us do.
Nurses have been most studied for this, as well as firefighters, emergency workers, and even people that live on ships. And they all pay the price, epidemiologically.
We’ve shown higher heart disease, more tendency to gain weight, and a variety of malfunctions and difficulties as time goes on. You can do it, but it might cost you some way or another.
Remembering your dreams is a sign of a good night’s sleep – MYTH
There can a huge variation in how much people remember their dreams. Some of it has to do with when you wake up. If you wake up during REM sleep, you almost always remember a dream. Some of us don’t remember anything at all about our dreams, and it doesn’t seem to harm them.
But it’s not a true thing that just because you remember your dreams, that you’re not having a good sleep. What tells you that you’ve had a good sleep is how you feel the next day.
Now, if you’re waking up with nightmares, that doesn’t suggest you’ve had a bad sleep either – instead it could be a simple sign that maybe your bedroom is too hot and that you need to turn down the temperature. Reason being is that a hot bedroom environment can create a fragmented sleep, and cause you to wake up often from nightmares.
Loud snoring is annoying but mostly harmless – MYTH
Loud snoring is actually a sign that there is blockage in your throat. The mildest form of blockage just causes vibration, noise. In simple terms, it’s creating a vibration from blowing through a partially blocked tube. And if that’s all it was, it wouldn’t be that bad. But unfortunately, it usually isn’t just by itself – especially if it is loud snoring.
Especially if the loud snoring is associated with gasps and snorts and pauses – is actually a sign of a very common disorder called sleep apnea. And this is not mostly harmless.
What is Sleep apnea?
Sleep apnea is when that blockage gets a little worse than just causing vibration and actually blocks the flow of air in. And when that happens, you’re actually choking. And when that gets complete, we call it apnea (“without breathing” from the Greek). Your body defends itself against this blockage by waking up, because everything gets normal when you wake up.
The trouble is that when you go back to sleep and it happens again, and it can happen every 30 or 60 seconds.
What are the dangers of sleep apnea?
Having obstructive sleep apnea increases your risk of high blood pressure (hypertension). Obstructive sleep apnea might also increase your risk of recurrent heart attack, stroke and abnormal heartbeats, such as atrial fibrillation.
Sleep apnea is a potentially serious sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts. If you snore loudly and feel tired even after a full night’s sleep, you might have sleep apnea.
The main types of sleep apnea are:
- Obstructive sleep apnea, the more common form that occurs when throat muscles relax
- Central sleep apnea, which occurs when your brain doesn’t send proper signals to the muscles that control breathing
- Complex sleep apnea syndrome, also known as treatment-emergent central sleep apnea, which occurs when someone has both obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea
If you think you might have sleep apnea, see your doctor. Treatment can ease your symptoms and might help prevent heart problems and other complications.
It’s fine to catch up on sleep by sleeping in during the weekend – MYTH
This kind of sleeping in behaviour is a very common practice for the vast majority of us. Unfortunately in our society we term this as a luxury, and that’s because most of us aren’t getting enough sleep during the week. In sleep talk, we’re adding bricks into our backpack of sleep debt.
Unfortunately, sleeping in sends a cue to our circadian rhythm that we’re trying to change time zones. So if we extend our rising time by more than an one, two, three or worse, four hours in to the morning – you might feel better than if you got up early, but that sleep the next night is going to be compromised.
This is commonly referred to as social jet lag.
The best practice is to keep a consistent bedtime schedule and try to get as much sleep as you can.
Now if you have an excessive sleep debt and you really need to pay that back on the weekends, the best way without interrupting your circadian rhythm would be to do that with an afternoon nap because that’s not going to change your body’s physiological circadian rhythm.
Hopefully some of these debunked myths help you get a better nights sleep.
While you’re hear, read more articles on sleeping:
– Science Insider, interview on 1 November 2019 with Dr Rebecca Robbins, PhD postdoctoral research fellow at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School and Dr David Rapoport, professor of medicine at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, running the research program in sleep.
Dr Rebecca Robbins, PhD postdoctoral research fellow at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School
Dr David Rapoport, professor of medicine at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, running the research program in sleep.
– Mayo Clinic. Sleep Apnea: Patient Care & Health Information, Diseases & Conditions Read more
– Healthline. How Much Deep, Light, and REM Sleep Do You Need? By Jennifer Leavitt, M.Ed. 10 October 2019. Read more
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