In an era of so-called fake news, there are plenty of untruths that swirl around the topic of sleep. Commonly held beliefs get passed on from generation to generation as hard truths, which aren’t necessarily based in scientific research and fact.
In our modern world, there are a number of research institutes focused on sleep and sleep associations (like The Better Sleep Council) that have helped move our knowledge base forward. Scientists have confirmed that sleep plays a vital role in health and, contrary to what was once thought, it’s not a time when the body is at rest. During sleep, our brains and bodies are busy doing critical repair and restoration work that keep us functioning and healthy.
With that in mind, we’d like to highlight some of the enduring sleep myths that just won’t go away – even though they should. Keep reading and let us know if you agree that it’s time retire these myths once and for all.
1. You need 8 hours of sleep a night
It’s a nice idea, but not always realistic. As Martin Reed, a certified clinical sleep health expert (CCSH) and the founder of Insomnia Coach, says more than half of the U.K population reports sleeping less than 7 hours on a regular basis. And a panel of sleep experts from organizations, including the British Psychiatric Association, the British Academy of Pediatrics, the British Geriatrics Society and the British Physiological Society, determined that a range of 6 – 9 hours is appropriate for people between the ages of 26 and 64.
“This myth of getting eight hours needs to be retired right now because it increases sleep-related anxiety — particularly for people who already struggle with sleep,” says Reed. “The fact of the matter is, we often can’t control how much sleep we actually get. It’s impossible for us to force ourselves to sleep for a specific amount of time. When we’re told that we all need 8 hours of sleep, we can be tempted to ‘try’ to get 8 hours of sleep. This immediately makes sleep more difficult. We can feel worried and anxious about our sleep (even if we’re getting sufficient sleep for our own needs).”
Getting rid of the idea that we all need 8 hours of sleep every night can reduce the pressure many people with sleep issues put on themselves to reach a certain amount of sleep. As soon as this pressure is relieved, one obstacle to a good night of sleep is immediately removed.
2. It’s helpful to fall asleep listening to music or with the television on
“Have you ever fallen asleep and dreamt about characters on the show you fell asleep to?” asks GinaMarie Guarino, a licensed mental health counselor from Psychpoint.com. “A major sleep myth that many people mistakenly adopt is that it helps to have the television or music playing while you fall asleep. While it may help some fall asleep faster, it actually prevents your brain from having a restful sleep.”
This is because the lyrics or dialog keep the language centers of the brain activated, which keeps the brain and body alert to the conscious surroundings. This awareness prevents a full night’s sleep and is a major contributing factor to poor sleep and fatigue. If you need light or sound at bedtime, consider a mood lamp that changes colors, music without lyrics, or a white noise machine. That way, your senses can be soothed to sleep but the language centers in your brain can relax, says Guarino.
3. Snoring is harmless
Caitlin Hoff, a health & safety investigator with ConsumerSafety.org, explains: “My own mother, in fact, believed this myth for years until, like many people who snore, she was diagnosed with sleep apnea.” Snoring is a common indicator of sleep apnea, a condition in which a person has difficulty breathing during sleep. Left untreated, sleep apnea can lead to cardiovascular problems and weight gain. A correlation has also been found between snoring and high blood pressure.
4. Older adults don’t need as much sleep
This sleep myth has persisted far too long. All adults need 6 to 9 hours of sleep for optimal health and safety. While older adults may have more sleep issues that keep them from those 7 to 9 hours, they are also more prone to take naps during the day to fill their quota. “While older adults do sleep less, on average, than young adults, it’s not because they need less sleep,” says Bill Fish, a certified sleep science coach with Tuck.com. Research shows that changes to the brain, and not a reduced need for sleep, actually cause age-related shifts to sleep patterns like fragmented sleep, sleeping less, and waking too early in the morning.
5. Alcohol is an effective sleep aid
Hoff acknowledges that a glass of red wine or another nightcap has often been thought to help with the easing into sleep. While the alcohol might put you to sleep, it will also disrupt your sleep cycles throughout the night. You’re more likely to wake up a few hours after falling sleep on the nights that you drink alcohol before bed.
6. Sleep more this week if you’re going to be short on sleep next week
This is one myth that so many of us wish was true. While you can develop a sleep deficit by not sleeping enough, you can’t invest in a sleep fund for future use or regain your lost sleep. Rather than sleeping late on the weekends to compensate for lost sleep during the week, it’s much easier on your body to sleep the same amount every night of the week. We know, easier said than done–but smart bedtime habits might help you find the balance you need for a healthy sleep schedule.
7. Stay up late, get tired, then go to bed
That’s not a good strategy, according to Nicole Johnson, president/owner, The Baby Sleep Site. “In my experience, that is opposite of how our bodies work. Our bodies release hormones to fight fatigue (think of getting a second wind), so it will actually lead to poorer sleep to make yourself more tired. You will sleep more restlessly.” Instead, she suggests going to bed about 30 minutes earlier than your normal bedtime to help your body ease gently into sleep, which will lead to a healthier night’s sleep.
If you’re in a vicious cycle of being overtired, breaking the cycle with a nap on the weekend can do wonders. Take a nap (even just 20-30 minutes) and head to bed earlier that night and you’ll likely feel great the next day. That said, a regular nap, if you don’t need more sleep, can leave you with insomnia. As with all things in life, balance is key to success.