The 25 Biggest Sleep Myths—Debunked
Hitting the snooze button is great for you! (And other bogus sleep claims.)
For something we spend about a third of our lives actively doing, we understand astonishingly little about sleep. So it’s no surprise that the Internet is flooded with all sorts of erroneous information about how much we need, how to sleep effectively, and how certain lifestyle choices such as diet impact the quality of our Z’s. But don’t worry: we’re here to set the record straight. With the help of some top-notch sleep scientists, we’ve compiled the 25 biggest sleep whoppers (and, crucially, the reasons why they’re so wrong). So sleep tight, brother, and if you’re still finding yourself tossing and turning into the wee hours, be sure to read The 10 Ways to Sleep Better Tonight—Guaranteed.
Our Brains “Shut Off” During Sleep
When we’re having a healthy sleep, we go through four or five cycles of changing brain activity during a typical night—moving between slow activity rates in deep sleep to high activity during dreaming (when brain activity is comparable to being fully awake).
“So while it is obvious to stay away from stimulants before bedtime that will keep our brains humming, it is also good to avoid depressants that interfere with the needed cycling of brain activity,” says Michael Larson, PhD, founder and president of Sleep Shepherd. If you’re looking to cheer yourself up, though, check out the 10 drug-free ways to beat depression.
Insomnia Is Physical, Rather Than Mental
We often think that not being able to sleep is solely the result of physical issues—too much caffeine or sugar, for instance. But this is just a silly notion among silly sleep myths. The reality is that being unable to sleep is usually the result of being unable to quiet our minds.
“Sleep is all about calming our brains—which means worry is sleep enemy number one for most,” says Larson. “As we implement natural ways to slow our brains and improve our sleep by altering our environment, be patient in finding a good combination of schedule, room darkness, temperature, and comfort that works for you.” It also may help to check out these Ten Ways to Beat Stress in 10 Minutes or Less.
Snoring Is Common and Nothing to Worry About
Snoring is an annoyance to your wife or partner, but it can be more serious, too. According to the National Sleep Foundation, snoring (especially frequent, loud snoring) may be a symptom of sleep apnea, “which can increase the risk of developing cardiovascular disease and diabetes, and cause daytime sleepiness and impaired performance.” If you find your performance dropping, read up on the 13 tips for a sharper brain.
Narcolepsy Means You Fall Asleep Randomly During the Day
While there is plenty we don’t understand about insomnia, narcolepsy is perhaps even more misunderstood. The goofy depictions we see of the disorder on television shows and the like, where the person is giving a presentation or having a conversation and falls asleep snoring mid-sentence, doesn’t really capture what it is all about and is totally insidious, as far as sleep myths go.
In fact, it’s the result of not getting enough quality sleep, where the line between sleep and waking is blurred. While that can mean you fall asleep during the day, it is just as often manifested as general sleepiness throughout the day, or in other ways such as cataplexy (loss of muscle control) or sleep paralysis (inability to speak when waking up or falling asleep). And to get an energy boost during the day, read up on the best way to get one, without coffee, at that.
You Can “Catch Up” On Sleep
We’ve all had those intense weeks of work (or crazy vacation weekends) where we’ve stayed up until the sun comes up and had to function the next day. While we can get away with this every now and again, making a habit of it can be trouble. One of the most common sleep myths is thinking that we can function with little sleep for a while, then “catch up,” in the long term, your body doesn’t really work that way.
“Your body needs consistency and the less sleep you get the more you disrupt yourself hormonally,” says Jamie Logie, a personal trainer, nutritionist, and health coach who hosts the podcast Regained Wellness. “When you don’t sleep enough your body assumes some sort of trauma must be going on as there’s no reason to be awake when you should be sleeping.”
This raises one’s stress hormones (primarily cortisol) and can cause plenty of trouble. “A little of this is not bad but chronic secretion of it can lead to a wide variety of horrible diseases and conditions,” he adds. Are you regularly stressed out? Brush up on the 30 ways smart men conquer their stress.
You Don’t Need a Routine
You live an exciting life and the idea of a “routine” probably puts you on edge—whether it’s in your travels, work, or otherwise. But when it comes to sleeping, routine is key.
“You need to create a wind-down routine at least an hour out from sleeping so your body recognizes that sleep is coming,” says Logie. “Your body needs balance so it means going to bed the same time each night and sticking with it. The problem is we tend to stick with it through the week and then it goes to hell on the weekend and it can take days to get back on track. By the time you do it’s almost the weekend again and the whole cycle can start over. You need to be committed to it day in and day out.” Sticking to a routine happens to be one of the ways successful men work on weekends.
Alcohol Is a Good Sleep Aid
We’ve all felt the drowsiness that comes over us after a few beers or glasses of wine. But while it’s tempting to think this makes alcohol a useful sleep aid, the reality is that it is far from it. According to Parinaz Samimi, a yoga instructor and sleep and wellness expert, alcohol, “may assist in helping an individual fall asleep, but they also interfere with what is considered ‘quality’ sleep.”
Alcohol causes “REM sleep fragmentation,” during which REM stage sleep is either shortened or extended, causing a disruption in the overall sleep pattern of the individual. Samimi adds that “Marijuana is also known to affect REM sleep, causing in a reduction the length of this sleep phase, thus making it unlikely to have dreams.” Speaking of drinking, you should know What Your Boozing Habits Say About Your Health.
Your Sleep Patterns Remain the Same Through Most of Your Life
“The amount of sleep you need changes throughout your life,” says Kimberly Hershenson, LMSW, of RevitaLife Therapy, “While pregnant or when dealing with an illness, more sleep is beneficial. Some people are okay with 6 hours of sleep. It matters what makes you feel good and well rested.” To prevent illness, brush up on the 20 ways to never get sick at work, ever.
Bedtime is When You Disconnect From Your Day
We often think going to bed is when we should leave our day and its ups and downs behind us, falling into comforting sleep. But to effectively calm our minds, reviewing your day, and particularly what went well, can have a positive effect on our sleep and mental fitness.
“Make a daily gratitude list before bed by writing down 10 things you are grateful for,” advises Hershenson. “Anything from your family, legs to walk on or reality TV. Focusing on what is good in your life as opposed to what is “going wrong with your life” calms you down before going to sleep.”
She also advises reading affirmations every night, ending the day with a positive note that helps “catch some rest with less worry.” And to really calm yourself down, apart the 10 lifestyle changes successful men make to slash stress for good.
As You Get Older, You Don’t Need as Much Sleep
Sure, your grandma got up at 4:30am every morning, but that does not necessarily mean she did not need a full night’s sleep.
“While your body requires less sleep as you get older, that doesn’t mean you should be sleeping for only four or five hours a night,” says Sydney Ziverts, health and nutrition investigator for ConsumerSafety.org.
She points to research by the National Sleep Foundation, which recommended that newborns get 14 to 17 hours of sleep each night while adults ages 18 to 64 should get seven to nine hours each night. In fact, getting more sleep is one of The 7 Secrets of Staying Young.
Pressing Snooze Will Help You Get More Rest
Yeah, pressing that snooze button is incredibly satisfying in the moment, but, contrary to the popular sleep myths that say otherwise, you are not actually gaining quality sleep. “The snooze button will actually make you feel more tired,” says Ziverts. “It wakes you from a deep part of your sleep cycle each time you doze off, causing you to feel groggy.” In the long run, a snooze-pressing habit will eat into your ability to get a deep sleep and the rest you need.
The Best Sleep Comes Before Midnight
Benjamin Franklin was full of good advice and, althought “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise” has plenty of adherents, it’s not necessarily true of everyone. If you find that 1am or later is what you feel is the best time for you to sleep, there is nothing wrong with trusting your gut.
“What’s most important is that people time their sleep in accordance with their own body clock by going to bed when sleepy,” says Catherine Darley, ND, from the Institute of Naturopathic Sleep Medicine. “For some people this means going to bed at midnight or later, and if they try to go to sleep earlier they won’t sleep well.” For other healthy living tricks, read up on the 100 ways to be a healthier man right now.
Sleeping More Than Eight Hours is Excessive
Again, it depends on who you are and how much sleep your body needs. Any other tidbits of information are likely one of many sleep myths.
“Sleep need is very individual, and some normal healthy adults do best with nine hours nightly,” says Darley. “Anything less than the amount of sleep you need can result in impaired mood, driving, and cognitive abilities.” To combat the decline in mental acuity, you could always try playing one of the video games that are scientifically proven to make your smarter.
You Must Get a Minimum of Eight Hours Sleep
Of course, the reverse is also true. If you are someone who functions at top form with just four or five hours of sleep, more power to you. As the Wall Street Journal reports, debunking the most legendary of sleep myths, a number of new studies have found that seven hours may in fact be the optimal amount of sleep time. So stop sweating it if you aren’t getting a full eight hours.
You Need an Alarm Clock
Actually, if you are using an alarm clock, you might be doing sleep wrong. Someone who is getting just the right amount of sleep usually wakes up without needing any prodding. An alarm is an artificial, and potentially damaging, contrivance.
“If you are awoken by an alarm, you haven’t gotten enough sleep,” says Darley. “You can move your bedtime earlier or waketime progressively later until you wake refreshed on your own.” So wake by the light of day. And while you’re at it, watch our video on how sunlight can burn fat and trim your waist.
Watching TV Before Bed Winds You Down
TV actually activates the mind and keeps you awake. Exposure to the blue light of the screen can disrupt a person’s natural circadian rhythm and make it more difficult both to fall asleep and stay asleep. “Instead, you may feel energized due to the increase in endorphins.”
The same is true of computers and eBooks. In one study, participants reading an eBook took longer to fall asleep and had reduced evening sleepiness—as well as reduced alertness the following day—than when they read a printed book. You will also want to avoid staring at your phone, so check out The 11 Easy Ways to Conquer Your Smartphone Addiction.
Light Exposure Doesn’t Really Matter
Similar to the effect TV and computer screens can have on your circadian rhythms, so too does the light in your home. “It is best to be in dim light conditions for the hour or more before bed,” suggests Darley. “Also important is to get bright light in the morning for 30 minutes, plus bursts of light every couple hours throughout the day.”
Bedtime Is More Important Than Waketime
While consistency and routine make all the difference in effective sleep habits, contrary to some sleep myths you may have heard, your bedtime is actually less important than the time you wake up, according to Michael Breus, PhD., the Sleep Doctor and a SleepScore Labs advisory board member.
“Wake time is the anchor of your biological clock,” says Breus. “So if you wake up at 6:30am during the week, you need to wake up at the same time on the weekends. The next is many times people will go to bed early because they are exhausted and this too can throw off the circadian clock.”
Tiring Yourself Out is a Good Way to Fall Asleep
While a regular exercise habit is a key part of a healthy lifestyle and will help keep you sleeping consistently, sleep myths are the liars that you should tire yourself out with an intense bout of exercise near bedtime. “Working out before bed actually does not often tire you out,” says Hershenson. Breus recommends exercising no later than four hours before you go to sleep. When you do exercise, try one of these Five Exercises in 10 Minutes That Will Transform Your Body.
Spicy Foods Give You Nightmares
Your friends have probably joked at some point about how an intense meal they had gave them scary dreams. If they were having nightmares, it probably wasn’t the habanero. That’s just one of many sleep myths.
“The fact of the matter is, there has never been a study that has proven a correlation between spicy foods and nightmares,” says Sarah Brown, a community wellness expert for SafeWise. “It’s more likely that eating these foods before bedtime might simply upset your stomach.”
Food Has Little Impact on Your Sleep Habits
But while what you eat might not give you nightmares, that is not to say it has no impact on your sleep behavior whatsoever. Studies by the National Sleep Foundation looking at the effect of calcium deficiencies on insomnia have found that vegetables high in the nutrient may be a natural key to improving sleep quality.
“Lettuce, which also contains high levels of potassium, necessary for a healthy nervous system, is a high producer of calcium and magnesium (the key ingredients in keeping the body asleep for longer),” says Daniel Turissini, founder of meditation service provider recharj. He adds that kiwi is another food that has been found (by researchers at Taipei Medical University) to improve the quality of sleep for those suffering from insomnia. “Participants fell asleep faster, stayed asleep for longer, and had a more peaceful and rejuvenating sleep compared to the study’s control group.” For more great advice on how to eat your best—and ultimately combat these sleep myths—here are Ten Painless Ways to Upgrade Your Diet.
The Most Important Thing is How Long You Sleep
Really, the hours you sleep are far less important than the quality of the sleep you are getting overall. Research has found that interrupted sleep is worse for positive mood than a shorter amount of sleep, debunking one of the most pervasive sleep myths.
“Melatonin is the hormone naturally produced by the body that makes us feel sleepy, and keeps us asleep,” explains Dr. Jo Lichten, professional speaker on health and wellness, author of Reboot: How to Power Up Your Energy, Focus, and Productivity. “It’s called the ‘Dracula hormone’ because it only comes out at night—for that reason, it’s best to dim the lights a couple of hours before bedtime and turn off electronics.”
Weekends Are Times to Throw Out Your Sleep Routine
“People tend to sleep on a regular schedule during the weekdays and then go to bed late and get up late during the weekends,” says Louise Hendon, cofounder of Paleo Flourish magazine. “This irregular pattern during the weekends prevents your body from getting into a good circadian rhythm.”
If You Can’t Fall Asleep, Keep Trying
You’ve been there before: an important day the next morning, but you can’t fall asleep. So you adjust your sleep position and keep trying to knock out. Next thing you know, half the night has passed and you’re just getting more frustrated.
Instead of waiting for sleep to come, Hendon recommends that restless sleepers “should just get up and do something else for a bit until they get sleepy again. This then allows their brain to better associate going to bed with actually going to sleep.”
Daniel Turissini, of recharj, adds that the average healthy person should be able to fall asleep within 20 minutes. “If you still feel restless after thirty minutes, do not force it! Staring at the clock will not help. Something in the environment or your mind is keeping you stimulated,” he says. “Read a book or take a warm bath to relax. If you feel anxious, remove your worries from your mind by writing them down on paper.”
Never Wake a Person in the Middle of Sleepwalking
Among sleep myths, one persists: waking a sleepwalker will lead them to have a heart attack or enter a coma. In fact, this is nonsense. While there are rare cases when a sleepwalker might get themselves into trouble, generally they just need to be led back to bed where they can wake up on their own.
Likewise, for parents out there, waking a child from a night terror is not going to harm your kid. I’m Hilary Thompson, a freelance writer specializing in family and wellness. The number one myth I see propagated among parents has to do with Night Terrors. Night Terrors is a sleep disorder (not to be confused with nightmares), most common in children, that typically occurs during the first hours of stage 3-4 non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep.
“The truth is, It does not hurt a child to be woken during an episode of night terrors, although it can be a difficult task,” says Hilary Thompson, a writer specializing in family and wellness. “The trick with night terrors is to wake the child before they occur, which stops the cycle and can actually prevent the child from experiencing them.”
She advises dads wake their child (say, with a drink of water) about an hour or an hour-and-a-half into the sleep cycle.
Now that you’ve learned all about sleep myths, check out these Ten Tips for Your Best Sleep Ever.
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