Like many parts of our wellbeing, there are many myths surrounding sleep; in terms of how much, when in the day and what to do to help us sleep better. These myths often give people the impression there is a quick fix, which just isn’t true.
Sleeping better comes from understanding yourself as a sleeper, and then making small changes to your behaviours, mindset and sleep environment to improve your sleep.
It comes from taking the stress out of sleep and unfortunately many of the myths make us feel more stressed.
Fortunately, we had the opportunity to talk to James Wilson aka The Sleep Geek who is one of the UK’s leading sleep behavior experts and he debunked the following 10 myths related to sleep during our conversation.
Myth 1: Snoring is permanent!
Fact: No, definitely not true, snoring itself can be caused by things like spicy food, alcohol, an allergic reaction, illness and our weight – all of which can be addressed. It could also be a sign of a serious sleep disorder called sleep apnoea, which is where the airways close during the night. For sleep apnoea, the snores are more like snorts or choking sounds and are often preceded by the snorer stopping breathing. If you are displaying these symptoms the disorder is treatable. Your first port of call should be your GP.
Myth 2: You can sleep during any hour of the day!
Fact: Sleep is an instinct, so if our body needs it, it will try and get sleep, so yes, in theory, this is true. However, not all sleep is equal, and generally, the quality of sleep is improved if it is done at night, and it is harder to sustain our sleep when we are trying to sleep during the day.
Myth 3: More sleep is always better!
Fact: No this is not true. A consistent amount of sleep is the best amount of sleep we can get. A consistent wake-up time drives a consistent sleep time which gets our body into a healthy pattern and leads to an improvement in the quality of sleep. In fact, research shows that inconsistent sleep times, for example, 5 hours in the week and 10 at the weekends can impact on our kidney and liver function.
Myth 4: If you work out at night, you won’t be able to sleep!
Fact: This one is a ‘kind of’! When we exercise, our heart rate and core temperature rises and our body is put into a stressful situation, meaning hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are released which impacts on your body’s ability to produce the hormone that helps us sleep, melatonin. However, many people who exercise late find themselves falling asleep quite easily; many of us find it is sustaining sleep that is the issue when we exercise late.
Myth 5: A nightcap is essential to snooze better!
Fact: No, most people don’t need to use alcohol to fall asleep and stay asleep. In fact we know alcohol generally has a negative impact on sleep, diminishing both quality and quantity. For most people, a small amount of alcohol, a bottle of beer or glass of wine, doesn’t really have much impact, but larger amounts usually do.
Myth 6: Aged people need less sleep!
Fact: No, from our mid-twenties until end of life, we have the same sleep need. What happens as we get older is that it gets more difficult to get the sleep we need. We become more sensitive to stress and anxiety, more sensitive to caffeine, our aches and pains get worse, waking us up more in the night. For women, the menopause can have a major impact on sleep. As good sleep gets harder to achieve, this is why we are more likely to feel more sleepy in the day.
Myth 7: Your brain can adapt to less sleep. Even just 3-4 hours!
Fact: Our bodies can handle less sleep but this does not mean this is healthy for us. Some people have a “short sleep” gene (and the estimate is about 0.5% of the population have this) which allows them to have less sleep with no obvious physical or mental issues. Most of us require somewhere between 5.5-10 hours’ sleep. However, do not forget – sleep need is not just about the amount of sleep. It is also the quality of the sleep you get.
Myth 8: You can manage with small power naps than extended and uninterrupted sleep!
Fact: No, not true. Power naps are about relieving the symptoms of sleep deprivation. About improving our alertness, our energy levels, our productivity. What they don’t give you is enough deep sleep to help our body recover physically, or the REM sleep we need to consolidate memory and work through the emotions of the day. Also if you are planning on using naps to give you energy in the day, remember that naps can reduce your sleep drive, which can impact on your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep at night. If you are napping in the day and not sleeping at night then the first place to start would be to knock the naps on the head.
Myth 9: Your brain stops functioning when you sleep!
Fact: No, in fact, your brain is busier in the night than it is during the day. During sleep, your brain clears itself of the neurotoxins that can contribute to dementia or Alzheimer’s, you consolidate the memories from the previous day, deciding which information to keep and which to discard and you work through the emotions of the day; sleep giving you an overnight counselling session to leave you ready to face the day ahead.
Myth 10: A single night’s sleep deprivation can pose serious health issues!
Fact: No I don’t believe it is and this is potentially a very damaging myth. A number of sleep academics have presented this information. Their reasoning is that people need to be aware of the serious health impact of poor sleep. Their belief is that poor sleepers are wilfully not sleeping, that it is their fault and if they just tried harder than everything would be ok. This is wrong for two reasons. Firstly, most poor sleepers are well aware of what poor sleep feels like and are desperate to improve their sleep. Secondly, this ignores one of the truths around sleep. Namely that we cannot force sleep, in fact, the harder we try to sleep the less likely it is to happen. Over a concerted amount of time, chronic insomnia can impact on your health. One night isn’t going to.
If you want more tips around ensuring a good night’s sleep, you may ask James Wilson in the comments. However, if you seek his help around things more complicated in nature or on any other sleep-related issues, feel free to reach out to James aka The Sleep Geek via Thesleepgeek.co.uk.
Photo by Ann Danilina on Unsplash