The 15 biggest myths and misconceptions about sleep

Even though humankind has always needed sleep, sleep science is a relatively new subject. Scientists have only been studying the effects and mechanisms of sleep since the middle of the 20th century.

Subsequently, there are a lot of myths and misconceptions surrounding sleep. With relatively little scientific information available, people have been filling in the gaps in their sleep knowledge with things that sound right but aren’t actually true.

Here are 12 of the most common myths and misconceptions about sleep.

1. You can catch up on lost sleep at weekends

A lot of people get too little sleep during the working week and then lie-in at weekends to repay their sleep debt. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work. Sleeping in at weekends won’t repay your sleep debt, and the damage caused by too little sleep occurs at the time it happens. If anything, irregular sleep hours make establishing good sleep habits much harder. It’s much better to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.

2. Snoring is harmless

Snoring can stop you from entering the latter, deeper stages of sleep. The noise stops you sleeping soundly, so you are more likely to wake up feeling tired, even if you think that you slept all through the night. Snoring can also develop into sleep apnea. This is when you briefly stop breathing while you sleep. This puts a lot of strain on your heart and could cause cardiovascular problems. Snoring also disrupts the sleep of those around you. If you are a frequent, heavy snorer, ask your doctor about the remedies available; there are ways to prevent snoring.

3. Naps are as beneficial as sleep

When you sleep, your body goes through four sequential sleep stages over the course of about 90 minutes. Most people complete 4-5 of these “sleep cycles” per night. The first two stages of sleep are important but are not restorative. In other words, they don’t do much for your energy levels. It’s only stages three and four that increase your energy. When you nap, you only enter the first two stages of sleep. This means that napping isn’t as beneficial as uninterrupted sleep, even if you nap several times per day.

4. You can get by on just a few hours of sleep per night

Some people are famous for getting by on less than the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep per night. Winston Churchill slept only a few hours per night during World War II. However, just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. Too little sleep can have a profound effect on your health, performance, and appearance. In fact, if you look at people who habitually fail to get enough sleep, you’ll soon see the effect it can have. Getting by on less sleep is rarely a good idea, and doing so can have a detrimental impact on your long-term health.

5. You can learn to be a morning person or a night owl

Because of something called your chronotype, some people are more awake in the early morning, and some people are more awake at night. These are genetic differences. While you can improve your ability to be a morning person or a night owl, genetics always win through. This is why some people are better suited to working nightshifts, and other people cannot handle them at all. If possible, play to your strengths by adjusting your waking hours according to your chronotype.

6. Sleeping pills are harmless

Can’t sleep? Take a sleeping pill! Unfortunately, people who take sleeping pills don’t sleep properly. They are unconscious rather than asleep, and that’s an entirely different physiological state. It’s basically sedation. Sedated sleep can also have a “hangover” effect, leading to daytime tiredness. While the occasional use of sleeping pills can help you overcome occasional insomnia, they should not be used for long periods.

7. An alcoholic drink is a good way to get to sleep more easily

Can’t sleep? Maybe a glass of something alcoholic will help. While you might find you fall asleep after a drink or two, it usually leads to fragmented, unrestful sleep. Alcohol-driven sleep typically only reaches stages one and two. Despite sleeping through the night, you will wake up feeling tired. You’ll sleep better if you wait a couple of hours after drinking before going to bed, so the alcohol has passed through your system.

8. Everyone needs the same eight hours of sleep per night  

Sleep experts agree that most adults need 7-9 hours of sleep per night. Eight hours falls in the middle of this recommendation, which is why a lot of people think that it’s the magic number of hours you need to sleep per night. The reality is that the amount of sleep you need depends on a host of factors, including your age, activity levels, and your genetics. For some people, six hours is adequate. For others, nine hours would be better. If you feel tired during the day, you probably need more sleep, irrespective of how many hours you actually get.

9. Eating before bedtime leads to weight gain

Eating shortly before going to bed can help you sleep, but a lot of people avoid doing it because they fear weight gain. So long as you don’t overeat, there is no reason to think that eating at bedtime will make you fat. If your body needs 2,500 calories per day, it doesn’t matter when you consume them. However, if you eat more calories than you need, at any time of the day, you’ll gain weight. Make sure that any nighttime snacks don’t take you over your daily calorie allowance by eating a little less during the day. This “leaves room” for your pre-bed, sleep-boosting snack.

10. Yawning means you are tired and need more sleep

While yawning can indicate tiredness and the need for sleep. It could also mean you are bored, or that you need to get up and move to pump oxygen around your body and up to your brain. Yawning is also contagious; if you see someone yawn, you are more likely to yawn yourself. Tiredness is not infectious, though, and if you yawn a lot, maybe you just need a more exciting job!

11. If you can’t sleep, just lay in bed until you can

Not being able to sleep can be frustrating, and this myth makes it more so. If you can’t sleep, lying in bed thinking about not sleeping won’t help. Instead, you need to distract yourself from your sleepless state and do something else. Reading a book, listening to music, doing some puzzles, making a list of tomorrow’s chores, or doing some relaxation and breathing exercises are all better than just passively waiting for sleep.

12. Hitting the snooze button on your alarm clock buys you more sleep

If you wake up feeling tired, you may be tempted to hit the snooze button on your alarm clock and get a few extra minutes of sleep. However, doing so can actually leave you feeling more tired. In the few minutes you snooze, you only enter stage one of sleep. This stage is nothing more than a stepping stone to deeper sleep. It has no real impact on your energy levels. In fact, being woken from stage one sleep just makes you feel less alert. Not hitting snooze and getting up when your alarm first sounds will probably make you feel more awake.

13. Your brain rests while you sleep

While sleep is a passive activity, there is still a lot going on while you are dreaming the night away. Your brain gets busy turning short-term memories into lasting ones and sorting and processing the information it has absorbed during the day. Your body is equally active, carrying out minor repairs, controlling inflammation, producing hormones, and oxygenating your tissues and cells. You might switch off while you sleep, but your brain and body don’t. In fact, because you are asleep, they have the time and energy needed to carry the biological “housekeeping chores” that are impossible while you are awake.

14. If you are a poor sleeper now, you’ll always be a poor sleeper

Some people label themselves as poor sleepers and think that’s the way things will always be. This is not true. Most sleep problems are caused by bad habits that can be easily rectified. A comfortable bed, less caffeine at night, a good pre-sleep routine, avoiding bright lights before bed, and sticking to a sensible bedtime can all turn a bad sleeper into a good one. You can learn to be a better sleeper.

15. The older you are, the less sleep you need

Older people tend to sleep less, but that doesn’t mean they need less sleep. Insomnia is more common in older people because they naturally produce less melatonin and serotonin, the two hormones responsible for sleep. Older people are also often less physically and mentally active, making it harder to sleep. Because of this, older people need to be more proactive in getting enough sleep; insomnia is not compulsory as you age.

Conclusion

Believing these myths could mean you don’t get enough sleep, or that the quality of sleep is not what it should be. It’s time to stop believing these common myths and misconceptions and start enjoying the benefits of good quality sleep. You’ll look, feel, and perform better if you do!

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