What are common sleep myths?
We all know and have felt the ill effects of a bad night’s sleep on our ability to maintain focus, concentration and good mood, but there are some rather unpleasant hidden effects on the body as well. After just one night’s bad sleep, stress chemicals such as cortisol are raised, causing widespread inflammation in the body and lowering resistance to infection.
Poor sleep can also suppress your metabolism, make you crave unhealthy foods and even negatively impact your creativity! No wonder Alfred Vogel called sleep ‘the one remedy we cannot do without’. Unfortunately, though, there is plenty of misconceptions and misinformation out there concerning sleep, especially when it comes to issues like how much sleep we actually need or how to get better sleep quality.
That’s why today I’ve decided to tackle some of the most common sleep myths out there and take a look at where they fall short when it comes to reality!
1. 6 hours is more than enough
It is true that individual sleep needs are varied – Margaret Thatcher, for example, claimed to have run the country on 4 hours sleep a night. The average adult, however, needs between 7-9 hours per night, no less. You might be able to get through your day on less than this, of course, but you have to take into consideration that you will not be functioning at your best.
In fact, according to the 2017 Great British Bedtime Report, sleeping between 5-7 hours is the norm for most of us. Unfortunately, this lack of sleep has, in turn, affected the quality of sleep experience when we do nod off, with 30% of us getting a poor night’s sleep most evenings, with stress being cited as a major issue.1 This makes sense, especially when you consider that, if you’re getting by on less than 6 hours, you’re increasing your risk of having mood or mental health problems.2
So, if you want to wake up feeling refreshed and go about your day without be plagued by the disruptive symptoms of sleep deprivation, try to aim for 7-9 hours!
2. All sleep is good sleep
Not true! The quality of sleep you get is just as important as the amount. I actually discuss this issue at length in my blog, ‘Why am I always so sleepy, not matter how much sleep I get?’ but, simply put, sleep quality relates to how much time you’re spending in each sleep phase.
There are 4 stages of sleep, plus REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, and you move through each during the night in a cycle that lasts approximately 90 minutes. Stage 4 (deep sleep) is where the body repairs itself from its exertions during the day. REM sleep, the stage where you dream, is the stage when your brain refreshes itself and is the stage that is important for mood, memory and learning.
If you do not get enough of either deep sleep or REM sleep, you will feel tired and not rested even if you have had 8 hours sleep.
3. You can ‘catch up’ on sleep at weekends
While having a lie-in may feel beneficial at the time, there is plenty of research to show that the body does not simply undo the ill effects of poor sleep with a couple of lie-ins. In a recent study, two groups of healthy volunteers had their sleep limited to 5 hours a night. One group, though, was allowed to catch up on sleep at the weekend.
At the end of the study, however, it was found that there was no metabolic benefit catching up on sleep at the weekend. In fact, this group actually had worse outcomes! Their insulin sensitivity declined up to 27% compared to the other sleep restricted group, who here reported a 13% decline.3
You also have to consider too, that sleeping late at the weekend will upset your wake/sleep cycle for the week ahead. A regular, consistent sleep pattern is the best thing to aim for.
4. It is normal to feel like nodding off in the afternoon
Daytime fatigue should never just be shrugged off or accepted as an inevitable part of your daily routine. This type of tiredness isn’t just associated with poor sleep – it can also be a sign of stress, fluctuating blood glucose levels, low blood pressure or even low iron levels. That’s why, if you are feeling excessively tired during the day, it’s important to address it rather than ignore it.
5. You’re just naturally a poor sleeper
If you’ve always been a poor sleeper, then there’s a general consensus that that’s just the way you are, and you’re not going to change anytime soon. This just isn’t true, though: even if you’ve been a poor sleeper most of your life, you can still turn things around and make some real improvements with your sleep habits and patterns.
Don’t just give up to the mentality of, ‘well this is the way it’s always been, I must just be naturally like this’. There’s plenty of changes you can make to your diet and lifestyle that could potentially benefit your sleep patterns. For more information, please check out my blog, ‘How do you create a good sleep routine?’
6. You need less sleep as you get older
As we age, changes in the hormones that regulate sleep do alter the wake/sleep cycle, but the total amount of sleep we need does not change dramatically. Older people may need to go to bed earlier, or nap during the day in order to get the amount of sleep they need.
7. If your sleep is disturbed, just try counting sheep
If you’re struggling to get to sleep, most of the time you assume that you should just stay in bed and wait until you eventually do nod off. This isn’t the best advice, though – I don’t know about you, but if I can’t sleep I just end up tossing and turning for hours at a time.
Instead, what I generally recommend is that you actually get up and out of bed and move to another room completely. Sitting quietly in another room may actually encourage sleep whereas staying in bed only promotes restlessness and could even make you associate where you sleep with stress.
8. Hitting snooze means you’ll wake up feeling more refreshed
You’ve had a rubbish night of sleep and your alarm has just gone off. You might be tempted to just hit snooze and buy yourself another 10 minutes in bed. However, as I mention in my blog, ‘Stop hitting snooze’, this isn’t the best tactic, especially if you want to wake up feeling refreshed. All hitting snooze actually accomplishes is to interrupt another deep sleep cycle, which means that when you do wake up again, you feel even worse than you did before!
9. Watching TV or drinking alcohol will help you to relax before bed
If you are feeling stressed or anxious in the evening, you might think that relaxing with a glass of wine in front of the TV is a good way to unwind and get ready for bedtime. Unfortunately, doing this actually achieves the exact opposite.
For a start, your TV (or any electronic device with a screen really) emits a blue light wave that can actually increase your production of cortisol. This steroid hormone actually inhibits your production of melatonin, the sleep hormone, thus making you feel more awake and alert.
It should also go without saying that relying on alcohol for getting a good night’s sleep is a bad idea. Alcohol might help you to get to sleep initially but you will find that your sleep is more disturbed during the night and that your overall quality of sleep is very poor.
Instead, if stress is a factor that’s keeping you awake and you are finding it difficult to relax, you could try our gentle Dormeasan sleep tincture.
10. Eating cheese will give you nightmares
Finally, the oldest myth of all! Will eating cheese really keep you awake at night? The answer to this age old question is a resounding ‘no’. Cheese, in and of itself, is not responsible for giving you nightmares. What could potentially upset your dreams is how much of it you’re eating, alongside other foods. You do not want to go to bed starving hungry, but if your body is busy digesting food it will not be able to rest enough for sleep. Try to allow at least 2 hours before bed to digest dinner, and avoid rich, heavy fatty food as it is so hard to digest.
(Originally published 03/03/14 updated 08/05/2019)