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9 Common Sleep Myths Debunked

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It’s not surprising there are so many myths about sleep and sleep problems. In fact, some of them are so plausible that you’ve probably spent most of your life believing them. Especially the myths that claim to help you sleep better.

Given that sleep is a relatively new field of study and we’ve only known about REM sleep since the 1950s, it’s understandable that some old ‘wives-tales’ are still lingering around.

We’ve researched 9 of the most common sleep myths and misconceptions. So next time someone tells you what their grandmother said about how to sleep better, you can set them straight with the facts.

9 Common Myths and Misconceptions About Sleep

Myth 1 - Your brain is inactive during sleep

While your body rests during sleep, your brain is actually very active. It has a lot of work to do. It needs to restore your body while controlling bodily functions including breathing and heart rate. And it’s your brain that moves you through the various stages of the sleep cycle. It can even paralyse your body during the REM phase of sleep.

Myth 2 - You can train yourself to need less sleep

We hear it all the time. People who say they get by just fine on only 4 hours sleep a night. But how do they do it? Did they train themselves to only need that much sleep? Rest assured, you’re not alone in wondering if it’s possible to train yourself to sleep less. But there’s just too much evidence that a lack of sleep has an adverse effect. Your mind and body can’t adjust to less sleep or be trained to ignore the fact it needs sleep.

Short-term, less sleep will drastically reduce your concentration, no matter how much coffee you guzzle. Not only that but if your lack of sleep is extreme you will end up confused and distressed.

The long-term effects of sleep-deprivation are even more worrying. Frequently getting fewer hours of sleep is associated with an increased risk of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.

So what’s with those people who get by on a few hours sleep and seem fine? 

Well, a research team led by Dr. Ying-Hui Fu at the University of California in San Francisco investigated genes associated with people who sleep for only short periods of time. The scientists sequenced the DNA of genes from families, looking for genetic links to extremely early wake-up times.

In the August 14, 2009 issue of “Science”, it is reported that found a mutation in a gene called hDEC2 in a family with 2 extremely early risers. Family members who carried this mutation slept an average of 6.25 hours, while non-carriers in the family averaged over 8 hours. The carriers naturally woke up earlier than non-carriers, even though they fell asleep at around the same time.

So unless those people functioning perfectly on a few hours sleep each night have a genetic mutation then you might want to assume they are exaggerating. Or they’re really good at pretending to feel fine.

Myth 3 - You can catch up on sleep on the weekend

You’ve stayed up late a few too many nights during the week and you keep telling yourself you’ll catch up on the weekend. We’ve all been there. But what you might not know is that catching up on sleep on the weekend could be doing you more harm than good.

Researchers in the US found that chronic sleep loss is not easy to recoup. Not only that but it can severely impair your performance later in the day. The study, published in Science Translational Medicine found that when people with a history of chronic sleep loss try to work extra hours into the night, their reaction times become about 10 times slower than what they were earlier in the day, increasing the risk of accidents and errors.

Maintaining regular sleep habits helps build a good, strong sleep-wake pattern and keeps you at the top of your game.

Myth 4 - Watching TV helps you fall asleep

Sitting in front of the TV after a really long day may seem like a great way to relax and take your mind off things. You may even fall asleep faster than you would if you were in bed thinking about all the things you need to get done. 

But what you might not know is that sleeping with the TV on doesn’t mean you’re getting a good night’s sleep. That’s because your tv emits light with a blue-ish hue. The type of light that makes your brain think it’s still daytime. When you’re exposed to blue light your body stops producing melatonin, the sleep hormone, which can leave you feeling more alert and awake than if you fall asleep in bed without light from the TV.

Myth 5 - Daytime naps are pointless and a waste of time

Napping for 15-90 minutes during the day is a great way to recharge, maintain motivation, be more productive and creative. But that’s only if you’re getting a good night’s sleep to begin with. If you find yourself sleepy for a big part of the day, your desire to nap could be an indicator of an underlying health problem such as sleep apnea, stress, insomnia or another sleep disorder.

Myth 6 - Teenagers are lazy and sleep too much

If you have a teenager you’ve probably experienced many mornings of trying to coax your child out of bed. Research shows that your teenager probably isn’t just being lazy. Around adolescence, your teenager’s body clock changed. During puberty, a 2-3 hour delay occurs in the circadian rhythm making children of this age ‘evening types’.

This is known as delayed sleep phase disorder and is characterised by a delayed sleep and waking time. Not only that but studies have shown that teenagers actually need 9-10 hours of sleep as opposed to the usual 7-8 hours most of us need.

Myth 7 - You need less sleep when you’re older

If you measured how many hours older people sleep you’d probably find that they sleep a lot less than younger people. But if you’re an older person that doesn’t mean you need less sleep. It simply means you may have more trouble sleeping.

The idea that you need less sleep as you age is a myth. In fact, the common decline in sleep as people age could be contributing to the rise of memory problems among the elderly according to Professor Sean Drummond, an expert in sleep and memory.

 

Professor Drummond said that as an older adult you need just as much sleep as younger people. But you may experience more fractured sleep because of changes in your circadian rhythm as you age. This means it’s harder to stay awake during the day and harder to sleep at night. Working on your sleep hygiene is imperative as you age and could improve your mental health.

Myth 8 - Regular snoring is normal

If you or your partner snore most nights it’s not normal and you should seek professional help. It most likely means that something is getting in the way of your breathing while you sleep. This is known as Sleep-Disordered Breathing (SDB).

SDB is usually caused by the soft tissue of your upper airway (that’s your tongue, soft palate, uvula and pharyngeal walls), either losing tension over time or bulking up with fatty deposits and intruding on your airway. This happens when you’re asleep or deeply relaxed and there is little or no conscious control of these tissues.

In more severe SDB cases, such as obstructive sleep apnoea, you stop breathing while you sleep. Not just once but hundreds of times during the night. As you’d expect, your sleep quality is severely reduced, your blood oxygen levels fall and your heart has to work really hard to compensate.

If you or your partner snore it’s imperative that you seek professional help. Take our sleep self-assessment questionnaire to determine the likelihood that you have sleep-disordered breathing.

Myth 9 - If you wake up in the middle of the night it’s best to stay in bed until you fall asleep again

One of the most common sleep disorders is insomnia. If you find it difficult to fall asleep, stay asleep or you wake up too early in the morning you may suffer from insomnia. The most effective treatment for insomnia is cognitive-behavioural therapy. This type of therapy focuses on the behaviour associated with your sleep patterns, thoughts and worries.

If you find that you can’t get to sleep within 15-20 minutes, get out of bed. And don’t go back to bed until you feel sleepy. If you’re lying in bed feeling worried about something you’ll start to associate bed with anxiety and not sleeping.

So once you’re up and out of bed what should you do? If you suffer from insomnia or you’re feeling anxious about something the best thing to do is to keep a journal where you can write down your concerns, what’s causing it, possible solutions to the problem and what you can do about it right now.

Don't Be Afraid To Ask For Help

If your sleeplessness is related to the tonne of work or tasks you need to do the following day or week, write a to-do list. If you’re not feeling anxious and you just can’t sleep settle into your favourite chair and read a good book. Not being able to sleep at night can be really frustrating and can leave you feeling exhausted and depressed.

Not to mention all the other health impacts. If you can’t figure out the reason for your sleeplessness it’s probably time to seek help. Make an appointment to talk to your doctor. In the meantime, you can take our sleep self-assessment questionnaire to rule out any sleep disorders.

References:
  • D. A. Cohen, W. Wang, J. K. Wyatt, R. E. Kronauer, D.-J.Dijk, C. A. Czeisler, E. B. Klerman, "Uncovering Residual Effects of Chronic Sleep Loss on Human Performance." Science Translational Medicine, Vol. 2, Issue 14, p. 14ra3, 13 January 2010.
  • Carskadon M., "When Worlds Collide: Adolescent Need for Sleep Versus Societal Demands", in Adolescent Sleep Needs and School Starting Times, editor Kyla Wahlstrom, Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation, 1999.
  • Dement, W.C., The Promise of Sleep, Dell Paperback 1999.
  • Spinks, S., Adolescents and sleep, A summary of what researchers know about teenagers’ need for sleep and why sleep affects memory and learning, FRONTLINE producer, PBS.
  • L. Almklov, Sean P. A. Drummond, Henry Orff & Omar M. Alhassoon, “The Effects of Sleep Deprivation on Brain Functioning in Older Adults”, Behavioral Sleep Medicine, Vol 13, Iss 4, 2015, pp. 324-345.
  • Ying He, Christopher R. Jones, Nobuhiro Fujiki, Ying Xu, Bin Guo, Jimmy L. Holder, Jr., Moritz J. Rossner, Seiji Nishino and Ying-Hui Fu, “The Transcriptional Repressor DEC2 Regulates Sleep Length in Mammals”, Science. 2009 Aug 14; 325(5942): 866–870.