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Common Sleep Myths, Debunked

Written by Jocelyn Zakri MPH, RRT, RPSGT, RST

What happens during sleep? Why do we dream? And what’s the danger of not getting enough shut-eye? Since the dawn of time, humans have been fascinated by the mysteries of sleep. Long before modern science provided answers to perennial questions about sleep, people devised theories to illuminate the murky, misunderstood realm of slumber. Some of these sleeping myths are still with us today.

Today, thanks to a scientific understanding of neurology and the biological processes involved in sleep, we understand more about it than ever before. But despite the ever-growing field of sleep research, myths about sleep are still alive and well. From how much sleep we need to whether “catching up on sleep” is possible to the origins of sleep apnea and other sleep disorders, our knowledge about sleep can sometimes lean more toward fiction than fact.

Nobody has time for misinformation about sleep. That’s why we’ve compiled the top myths about sleep to help separate myth from fact.

Top 20 Sleep Myths, Explained

You’ve likely heard more than one of these often-repeated sleep statements. But you may not know the science behind these common sleep myths.

Myth: You need eight hours of sleep per night.

Fact: Your ideal number might vary.

The amount of sleep needed every day varies from person to person, although about 6.5 to 9 hours is right for most. Per research, sleeping fewer than 5 hours nightly is linked to stress and depression; sleeping less than 6 hours or more than 9 hours increases your risk of metabolic syndrome. Most sleep experts agree: The right amount of sleep for you is the amount that allows you to wake up feeling rested.  

Myth: Alcohol helps you get to sleep.

Fact: Booze before bed disrupts sleep.

While a nightcap seems like a relaxing way to end the day, numerous studies show that alcohol disrupts sleep patterns, contributing to restless, poor-quality sleep and even nighttime awakenings. Doctors advise sipping in moderation and avoiding any alcohol in the last hour before bed.

Myth: Never wake a sleepwalker.

Fact: Waking a sleepwalker is harmless (but not easy).

We’ve long been told to never, ever wake a sleepwalker. But because a sleepwalker might put himself in danger (think stairs, kitchen appliances and bunk beds), waking him might be necessary. Experts advice gently guiding a sleepwalker back to bed, but don’t worry about waking him. If you do, he’s unlikely to remember a thing.

Myth: We need less sleep as we age.

Fact: Age doesn’t diminish the need for sleep.

While older adults do sleep less, on average, than young adults, it’s not because they need less sleep. 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.

Myth: Sleeping through the night is ideal.

Fact: Waking during the night is biologically normal and historically common.

Although “sleeping through the night” is the American cultural norm, sleep patterns have varied throughout history and across different cultures. Historians say that before electric lighting was commonplace, people generally slept in two phases over a 12-hour period, waking up for several hours in the middle of the night to read or socialize before falling asleep again until morning. Some research suggests that this type of polyphasic sleep cycle might benefit performance.

Myth: Night terrors and nightmares are the same thing.

Fact: Night terrors are nightmares differ substantially.

While occasional nightmares are a near-universal experience, true night terrors are much more rare, affecting only about 1 percent of adults and up to 6 percent of children. And while we often remember an intense nightmare, someone experiencing a night terror won’t recall the episode later.

Myth: Naps are bad for productivity.

Fact: Long live the power nap.

Research shows that mini naps as short as 7-10 minutes can boost alertness. Around 20 to 30 minutes is often considered the sweet spot for nap length, but don’t neglect nap timing. Early afternoon is the best time to snooze without cutting into nighttime sleep.

Myth: Sleep apnea only occurs in middle-age men.

Fact: Sleep apnea is on the rise for both genders.

The belief that Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) is a male disorder is one of the most common sleep apnea myths. While apnea appears more commonly in men, rates of sleep apnea are increasing in both men and women, a trend linked to higher rates of obesity in the general population. Researchers say sleep apnea is underdiagnosed in women, despite the fact that women are just as likely as men to show symptoms, including snoring, headaches, depression, insomnia and fatigue.

Myth: Sleep apnea can only be treated with a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) device.

Fact: Modern sleep apnea treatments include smaller, more portable options.

Some people avoid seeking help for sleep apnea symptoms because the thought of sleeping next to a CPAP machine isn’t appealing. But other treatment options exist. In some cases, sleep apnea can be treated with a small wearable oral appliance instead; tonsillectomy surgery can also improve apnea symptoms.

Myth: You only dream during very deep sleep.

Fact: Lighter sleep is what dreams are made of.

Dreams exist during Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, but science shows that all stages of sleep are vital to wellbeing, and that sleep stages occur in a certain sequence for a reason. Sleep science shows that slow-wave sleep boosts memory and learning, particularly when it follows REM sleep.

Myth: You can catch up on missed sleep by sleeping late on weekends.

Fact: You may do more harm than good.

Catching up on sleep” may be little more than a dream. Varying your sleep schedule by more than one hour disrupts your circadian clock and is linked to what researchers call “social jet lag,” a form of sleep deprivation linked to obesity and other negative health outcomes. For better sleep and better health, stick to a consistent bedtime and wake time on weekends and weekdays alike.

Myth: You swallow eight spiders per year.

Fact: This unappetizing anecdote is (thankfully) untrue.

Arachnologists, or scientists who study spiders, offer some welcome news: Common house spiders just aren’t that interested in sleeping humans. A snoozing person is more likely to scare a spider than attract one. And if you’re sleeping with your mouth open wide enough for a spider to crawl in, you’re probably snoring, which points to bigger problems than a little eight-legged friend or two.  

Myth: When you can’t sleep, stay in bed until you’re sleepy.

Fact: Tossing and turning can actually worsen insomnia.

When you can’t sleep, lying in bed can dial up anxiety and worry. Make this a habit, and you’ll eventually associate your sleeping space with wakefulness instead of sleep. If you can’t sleep after 20 to 30 minutes, experts advise getting up and doing something relaxing away from bed (reading is a good choice), then returning when you feel tired.

Myth: It’s impossible to sleep standing up.

Fact: Upright sleep is possible, but not ideal.

While numerous animals can sleep standing up, humans prefer horizontal slumber. But as Buddhist monks have proven, it’s possible to sleep in an upright position. For most of us, though, it’s not advisable, because sleeping completely upright may carry a risk of falls and injury. However, sleeping with the torso elevated is commonly recommended for people with certain health conditions like GERD and sleep apnea.

Myth: Sleeping on your stomach is bad for you.

Fact: Stomach sleeping isn’t the most problematic position.

Sleeping on the stomach is blamed for a host of problems, from facial wrinkles caused by the pressure of the pillow—a myth science has debunked—to neck aches caused by an unnatural head position. But it’s actually back sleeping that contributes most to snoring and sleep apnea. For snorers, a side-sleeping position is recommended.

Myth: Sleep paralysis happens to most people at some point in their lifetime.

Fact: You probably won’t ever experience sleep paralysis.

Sleep paralysis myths are common, because the condition isn’t well understood. It seems terrifying, and with good reason—during sleep paralysis, you’re unable to move or speak for several minutes. It can be accompanied by hallucinations and panic, and it’s linked to health problems like narcolepsy and hypertension. Fortunately, most people won’t have an episode. Sleep paralysis occurs in fewer than 8 percent of the general population, though it’s nearly five times more common in those diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder.

Myth: For better sleep, bundle up in layers of blankets.

Fact: Cooler temperatures promote better sleep.

Can’t sleep? You may want to check your thermostat and peel off a layer or two. Cooler temperatures can help you nod off and stay asleep, because they signal the onset of sleep. Higher core temperatures are associated with poor-quality sleep and even nightmares. Experts say the ideal temperature for sleep is between 65 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit.

Myth: Sleeping pills are addictive.

Fact: Some are habit-forming, but others aren’t.

It’s healthy to take a cautious approach to sleep medications. Prescription sleep aids can be habit-forming, which is why most are prescribed for short-term (under two weeks) use. But many over-the-counter sleep medications, like the “PM” versions of popular OTC pain relievers, melatonin and herbal sleep remedies like valerian are not habit-forming. However, most sleep aids (including OTC and herbal ones) aren’t approved for pregnancy or nursing, and it’s always safest to check with your health care provider before popping any sleeping pill, OTC or otherwise.

Myth: Pulling an all-nighter can help you ace that test.

Fact: You’ll perform better after a good nights’ sleep.

Skipping sleep to cram for a test is counterproductive, since going without sleep leaves you less able to recall what you’ve learned. Per research, just one night of sleep restriction cuts attention, focus and mood.

Myth: You can sleep when you’re dead.

Fact: Skip sleep, and you might actually die.

Though the phrase “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” isn’t meant literally, it may be closer to the truth than people realize. In animal studies, total sleep deprivation results in death within 2 to 3 weeks. In humans, the timeline might be even shorter. One man died after 11 days without sleep; he stayed up to watch every game of the European Soccer Championship. And though lack of sleep usually isn’t fatal, chronic sleep deprivation is linked to serious ailments, including Alzheimer’s, dementia and heart disease. Which means that even if sleep deprivation doesn’t kill you directly, it can certain reduce your quality of life (and make you miserable, to boot).

Sleep Truths: These “Myths” Are Actually True

Rest assured, not everything you know about sleep is wrong. Some traditional beliefs surrounding sleep hold up in scientific studies.

Truth: Spicy food is bad for sleep.

This time-worn tale is true: Science has proven that spicy food can lead to poor quality sleep; researchers say that spice elevates body temperature, leading to fragmented, disrupted sleep.

Truth: Sex helps you sleep.

Yes, it’s true: Sex can help you drift into dreamland, thanks to surge of post-coital hormones that make you feel relaxed and sleepy.

Truth: Reserve your bed for sleeping and sex.

Researchers agree that keeping activities like work, eating and watching TV out of the bedroom help your brain associate the bed with relaxation, promoting a smoother send-off to sleep.

Truth: Warm milk helps you sleep.

Science supports this age-old tradition, because the calcium in milk helps the brain use tryptophan to make melatonin. Dairy foods like yogurt, milk, and cheese, each with at least 300 milligrams of calcium per serving can help you sleep.

Truth: Nightly snoring probably means you have sleep apnea.

While occasional snoring isn’t a cause for concern, sawing logs night after night is a red flag, say sleep experts. Those who snore most nights should talk to their doctor about a sleep study, an overnight test that can diagnose sleep apnea.

Truth: Daily exercise can improve sleep.

Get moving during daylight hours, and you may sleep more peacefully at night. Studies show a link between physical activity and better sleep, but researchers don’t agree about the best time of day for exercise. Some studies highlight morning activity as most beneficial, while others recommend exercising in the early evening.

Truth: Getting enough “beauty sleep” can help you look younger.

The fabled fountain of youth may be elusive, but sleep is a powerful youth elixir thanks to vital hormones released during sleep. Human growth hormone, responsible for tissue repair, is primarily produced during sleep. Chronic sleep deprivation cuts the body’s production of HGH; low levels are linked to everything from heart disease to thinning hair.  

Sleuthing out the facts about sleep—and putting sleeping myths to rest—can help you get the ZZZs you need to feel your best, every day.

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