16 Most Common Myths about Sleep

From counting sheep to lazy teenagers, there seems to be a lot of misconceptions and sleep myths out there.

Usually we get busy busting myths on mattress shopping and uncovering the top brands, but here, we’re tackling the subject of sleep. Let’s set the record straight, scientifically, by separating sleep myths from the real facts.

Do you think you swallow gobs of spiders or that you can make up missed sleep later? Better keep reading! Sleep myths evolve from a variety of sources, including pop culture, old wives tales and things that might seem like common sense.

However, the more science learns about sleep, the more they pull the covers off of some popular sleep myths. Let’s look at what really goes on when the lights go out.

1. Everyone Needs Eight Hours of Sleep

Verdict: SOMEWHAT TRUE.

Experts recommend adults get between seven and nine hours of sleep per night. Teenagers need a little more, between eight and 10 hours, with all other children requiring more than 10 hours.

On average however, research finds people sleep closer to seven hours a night. Remember, it’s a spectrum though. Some people get by on seven, others may feel best with a little over eight hours.

Scientists discovered a gene in 2-3% of the population, which allows them to function normally with less sleep, although the vast majority of people need somewhere around 8 hours a night.  For people without the superhuman gene, sleeping less than six hours per night is associated with increased mortality, as is sleeping more than 10 hours every night.

2. You Can Get By on as Few as Four Hours per Night.

Verdict: MYTH.

Some people claim that they can function normally on four hours of sleep per night. But, unless you have the aforementioned sleeping gene, this simply isn’t true. The thought that humans perform their best with very little ranks high among sleep myths.

Individuals who claim they function normally on fewer hours of sleep actually may be unaware of their degree of impairment. When researchers objectively measured cognitive and neurobehavioral functions in sleep-deprived adults, they found significant impairment in skills such as memory, attention and reasoning versus how the people rated their own abilities.

In other words, when people are sleep deprived their ability to accurately assess performance is impaired, so they may not realize how many mistakes they are making.

3. Older People Need Less Sleep

Verdict: MYTH.

Sleep patterns may change as you age, but typically the amount of sleep you need does not.  Changes in the circadian rhythms of seniors means they may wake up earlier in the morning. This often means transitioning to bed early as well.

Also, older adults may wake more frequently in the night, fragmenting their slow-wave deep sleep time, or take more time to fall asleep. Thus, more time may be needed to get an adequate amount of rest.

Experts recommend that those over 65 years of age get between 7 and 8 hours of sleep per night. Getting good sleep protects overall health and keeps things like memory functioning normally. Some seniors may choose to supplement a more fitful night’s sleep with a daytime nap (but keeping them under 30 minutes is recommended).

4. You Can Catch Up on Sleep During the Weekends

Verdict: MOSTLY MYTH: 

sleep calendar
Trying to catch up on sleep during the weekends increase sleep irregularities and impairs cognitive performance.

Your week feels chaotic, leaving you missing an hour or two of sleep for several nights in a row. No problem, you can just catch up by sleeping in on weekends, right? Well this isn’t exactly true, as sleep irregularities and short-term deprivation impairs your cognitive performance.

Researchers in the US examined both short-term sleep loss and long-term changes to the body’s circadian rhythm and found that individuals cannot quickly recover from chronic sleep loss. Thus, the idea that you pay back lost rest seems to be joining the rank of sleep myths.

Depending on the sleep debt accumulated, you may be able to catch up on some lost sleep, but be aware that an irregular sleep schedule may cause additional problems of falling or staying asleep if the circadian clock resets to these new hours.

If you stay up too late one night, try to take it easy and recoup that rest the night — don’t let the debt stack up. Chronic sleep loss is not easy to recoup and severely impairs performance later in the day, particularly late at night when performance is naturally low.

5. Counting Sheep is the Fastest way to Fall Asleep

Verdict: MYTH.

Counting sheep is thought to have come from tallying systems devised by shepherds long ago in Britain. The idea seems simple: a repetitive, rhythmic and boring activity to bore you into sleeping.

Scientists at Oxford University decided to put sheep counting to the test. The competition? Visualizing relaxing scenes while trying to fall asleep, such as beaches or waterfalls. The results: The Relaxing Visualizers were able to fall asleep 20 minutes faster than the Sheep Counters.

Researchers think that counting sheep may actual bore reluctant sleepers too much, causing distraction. Imagining tranquil images may feel engrossing enough to expend just enough mental energy to slip into sleep and fight of distracting thoughts.

As an added bonus, those who envisioned relaxing imagery had less worries and unpleasant thoughts while they went to bed. So ditch the sheep for the gentle lapping of ocean waves, and you will be sleeping in no time.

6. Watching TV Helps You Sleep

Verdict: MYTH

Some people ardently claim that the background noise of the television lulls them to sleep. However, there are several reasons why TV is a poor choice for a sleep aid.

Television emits blue light, which delays the production of melatonin, the hormone that regulates our biological clock and induces sleep. Exposure to blue light makes one feel more alert and awake, keeping you up later. Experts say to avoid it in the hours leading up to bedtime.

Most shows are also designed to be stimulating rather than sleep inducing, so your brain may be paying attention instead of resting. Plus, the changing of volume and lighting can break the quality of your sleep.

For better background noise, ditch the TV and opt for a fan or sound machine. Calming music or an audiobook of something you’ve already read can also provide background sound without the light.

7. Alcohol Helps You Sleep

Verdict: MYTH.

While it is true that alcohol induces a bit of drowsiness after the buzz wears off, it’s a actually a sneaky sleep stealer.

As your body metabolizes alcohol, the byproducts negatively affect your quality of sleep reducing the deep, restorative cycles. So, it’s best to ditch that nightcap or cut back earlier in the night if you are trying to get a good night’s sleep.

Long-term alcohol use can also obstruct airways, which may lead to sleep apnea, or cause gastric acid reflux

8. Snoring Is Harmless

Verdict: NOT ALWAYS TRUE

Approximately 45% of people snore, with 25% classified as habitual snorers.  Of the habitual snorers, 1 in 3 men, and 1 in 5 women suffer from some degree of Obstructive Sleep Apnea.

Sleep Apnea refers to episodes of reduced or no airflow throughout the night. People may wake frequently gasping for breath. This sleep disorder is associated with other medical problems such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

If you or your partner snores heavily regularly or sometimes wakes up gasping for air, bring it up with a doctor.

9. Lazy Teenagers Just Like to Sleep In

Verdict: MOSTLY MYTH.

According to experts, teens need at least 8-10 hours of sleep each night, compared to an average of 7-9 hours each night for most adults.

Teens need more sleep due to the rapid period of growth and development they are going through. Their bodies are growing, and their brains face the task of cramming in a lot of learning.

However, their biological clocks keep them awake later at night, and thus sleeping in later in the morning. Parents can help by keeping teens on fairly regular schedule all week round. Turning phones, tablets and laptops off close to bedtime is wise for the whole family, teens in particular. Bright blue light and social distractions just serve to exacerbate the late nights.

So even though the change in a teen’s sleep pattern is not really laziness, it does not give them an excuse to be lazy and skip helping with dishes!

10. Naps are a Waste of Time

Verdict: MYTH.

Albert Einstein taking a nap
Albert Einstein was known to take naps to increase productivity.

In North American culture, naps tend to get a bad rap for being lazy. However in many other cultures, a daytime siesta is a chance to take a break out of the hot sun. So where do naps fit on the sleep myths spectrum?

Well, recent research yields plenty of good things, from improved attention, better creativity, and better productivity at work. Taking a brief nap regularly around lunch time makes time to restore and refresh your mind, it seems.

So put your feet up, and join the ranks of historically famous nappers: Einstein, Edison, and John F. Kennedy. But keep midday naps under 30 minutes to avoid grogginess, and take them earlier in the afternoon (around lunch time).

11. Exercise Before Bed Help Your Sleep

Verdict: TRUE AND FALSE. 

Overall, getting regular exercise helps you sleep. A study of over 2600 people found that 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise a week resulted in a 65% improvement in sleep quality.

This sleep myth might depend more on your own internal clock. Early birds might prefer morning sessions, while night owls afternoon to evening gym visits. But it is best to avoid vigorous exercise one to two hours before bed as it elevates your core body temperature and endorphins, making it more difficult to fall asleep. Keep it at least three hours before bed if prefer nighttime workouts.

However, light exercise, such as gentle yoga and stretching may work to promote sleeping. So if you want to move before bedtime, consider light exercise with gentle, flui movements to ease you to sleep.

12. If You Can’t Sleep, Stay In Bed

Verdict: MYTH.

If you are having trouble falling asleep, or wake in the night and are just staring at the clock stressing about not sleeping, experts recommend getting out of bed and participating in a relaxing activity. Try going to another room to read or listen to quiet music. Only return to bed when you feel tired.

13. Never Wake a Sleepwalker

Verdict: MYTH. 

Sleepwalking is a disorder that originates during sleep and results in walking or performing complex behaviors while asleep. Sleepwalking episodes may last from a few seconds to longer than 30 minutes, and there have been documented cases of people cooking or even driving while sleepwalking.

The supposed danger of waking a sleepwalker remains one of the top sleep myths persisting around this disorder. The sleepwalker may have little to no memory of the event and be difficult to wake, but they will not die or go into shock if you wake them. They may be startled or disoriented when woken, and react with violent or confused actions, though, so be cautious.

Depending on their environment, it could do more harm to let them continue sleepwalking. Driving, leaving gas burners on, and falling over balconies or down stairs are all examples of dangerous sleepwalking activities.

If you are able to, simply steer the sleepwalker back to their bed or stick around to make sure they don’t injure themselves. If you need to wake them, it is safe to do so.

14. Over-the-Counter and Natural Sleep Aids are Risk Free

Verdict: MYTH.

Over-the-counter sleep aids are best taken for only a short period to avoid dependency and drug tolerance. Although they use a lower amounts of the active ingredients found in prescription drugs, large doses or prolonged use may cause problems with keeping sleep cycles regular. Some may also affect deep sleep patterns.

As for natural sleep aids, the title ‘natural’ doesn’t always equate to ‘healthy’. For example, natural sleep aid Kava Kava from the Pacific Islands has been reported to be a contributing factor in liver and kidney failure, and now comes with a warning from the FDA.

Try things like a warm bath, calming scents and music and other good sleep hygiene first, and consult with your physician about supplements.

15. Sleeping Less Makes You Skinny

Verdict: MYTH.

standing on a weight scale
Sleeping less could actually cause weight gain.

This misconception is based on the assumption that less time spent sleeping is related to having a more active lifestyle that burns more calories. Not only does less sleep not help you lose weight, it can actually cause the opposite.

The truth is that the amount of sleep a person gets affects certain hormones including leptin and ghrelin, which affect appetite. These hormones control feelings of hunger and fullness. Ghrelin, produced in the gastrointestinal tract, stimulates appetite, while leptin, produced in fat cells, signals the brain when you are full.

When you don’t get enough sleep, leptin levels decrease so you don’t feel full after eating, and ghrelin levels increase, stimulating your appetite so you crave more food. Simply put, less sleep can mean more weight.

16. During Sleep, Your Brain Rests

Verdict: MYTH.

During sleep your body rests, but your brain remains active. Even in the deepest sleep our mind can process information and control bodily functions, such as breathing.

Your brain also manages to get recharged and to clear out the waste byproducts of daytime neural activity. Dreaming is thought to consolidate long-term memories and build neural connections, too.

Share: Did you find any of these sleep myths surprising, or do you know of other commonly misunderstood facts on rest?

Medical Disclaimer: The information contained on the site should not be used as a substitute for the advice of an appropriately qualified and licensed physician or other health care provider. The information provided here is for informational purposes only.

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