Despite significant advances in the science of sleep in recent decades, there are still a number of common myths and misinformation about sleep that often lead to poor sleep habits and consequentially insufficient sleep. It’s time to set the record straight on a few of these in the hope of a better night’s slumber.
Myth #1: Many Adults Can Function on Less Than 6 Hours of Sleep
We’ve all heard of ‘short sleepers’, people who take pride in their ability to sleep for only 4 or 5 hours a night, which gives them time to achieve what others simply cannot by sleeping the recommended 7-9 hours per night. Donald Trump, Margaret Thatcher and Jack Dorsey all fall into this category.
However, as we now know, following in their footsteps is extremely dangerous for good health. Insufficient sleep leads to a shortened life span, increased risk of a multitude of health conditions, including Alzheimer’s and heart disease, and even lowers your IQ.
While a very small number of the population – approximately one in four million – seem to be able to function with shorter periods of sleep, due to a rare genetic mutation, the overwhelming majority simply cannot. It’s foolish to think otherwise.
Myth #2: More Sleep is Always Better
While most of us need to focus on sleeping more, some of us sleep too much. Often described as ‘super sleepers’, these rare group of people may consistently sleep over 10 hours every day. This is linked to major health issues, such as depression, heart disease and weight gain.
One study showed that over-sleepers were 25% more likely to gain over 10 pounds over 6 years than people categorised as sleeping the average amount. Because of these health risks, increased mortality rates is associated with people who sleep too much.
Excessive sleep may be a symptom of an underlying health problem, rather than an illness in of itself. These underlying health issues could therefore be the cause of the associated ailments and more serious illnesses.
Myth #3: If You Can’t Sleep, Lie Still in Bed Until You Fall Back to Sleep
Contrary to popular belief, if you’re struggling to fall asleep or you wake up in the middle of night for extended periods of time, it’s recommended to get out of bed and do something relaxing before trying to get back to sleep.
Tossing and turning in bed is often associated with the feelings of frustration and anxiety, and it’s important instead to associate your bed with relaxation and sleep. If you do find yourself struggling to sleep, try breathing and relaxation techniques, or perhaps some mindfulness meditation for 10 minutes or so.
Do not check your phone, laptop or any other electronic device; these may cause further stress and the light emitted from these devices will induce wakefulness.
Myth #4: A Night Cap Will Help You Drift Off
While a couple of glasses of wine (or more) before bed may help you to relax, induce drowsiness and make it easier to drift off, alcohol before sleep leads to fragmented sleep, disturbs your sleep cycles and substantially reduces the quality of your sleep.
Even one drink a couple of hours before bed-time will cause these adverse effects, so it’s crucial to completely eliminate alcohol consumption before bed if you want to sleep well.
Myth #5: Teenagers Are Lazy for Not Waking Up Early
Parents often criticise their teenagers for going to bed and waking up late, claiming their ‘night owl’ tendencies are a matter of choice, due to laziness. However, for a significant number of teenagers, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Circadian rhythms, which drive our sleep/wake cycles, shift back a couple of hours during adolescence, meaning it’s more natural to sleep and wake later. Forcing your children to wake up at 7am, rather than letting them sleep in, is the equivalent of an adult being forced to wake up at 5am. This may be fine for some people, but will cause sleep deprivation for others who don’t fall into the ‘early bird’ category.
Because of the natural shift in circadian rhythms and early school starting times, most teenagers don’t get enough sleep, which has lead the scientific community and many organisations to call for schools to start later.
Myth #6: You Can Catch Up On Sleep
Many of us try to catch up on sleep by napping in the day or sleeping in on weekends. However, both of these have been shown to be ineffective in helping the long-term quality of your sleep.
While napping may re-energise you, it doesn’t allow you to enter the different stages of sleep (NREM and REM) in the same way a longer sleep will. It may also cause your sleep rhythms to misalign, making it more difficult to get to sleep at night.
This is the case for sleeping in on the weekends too. It’s best to maintain a consistent sleep schedule, going to bed and waking the same time every day, and giving yourself a long enough sleep period to be fully rested.
Myth #7: Eating Cheese Gives you Nightmares
Eating anything to close to your bed-time may cause a restless night, and certainly eating cheese every night will most likely cause you to gain weight, but there is no evidence to suggest cheese causes nightmares.