Although sleep is something that we all need every day, there are many misconceptions that abound regarding this nightly necessity. In an effort to help you ensure a thoroughly restful night, we’ve examined the ten most prevalent myths surrounding sleep.
1. Sleep isn’t really that important! I can get by with just a few hours a night.
Incredibly, this idea remains a popular myth. In today’s fast-paced society that’s overwhelmed by our desire for instant gratification, people all too often attempt to make up for lost time by cutting into their shut-eye. The truth is that lack of sleep actually cuts down productivity by causing us to make more mental mistakes the next day. Your body and brain operate far more efficiently when you get at least the recommended eight hours per night, as sleep is how both recover from our daily activities. Although the brain does not entirely shut down at night, adequate rest allows it to process the information you took in the previous day.
2. I can wind down at the end of the day by watching TV or browsing the web.
Almost everyone has fallen prey to this belief at one time or other. I remember that my own favorite way to fall asleep in college was to pop in a movie and wait until I felt drowsy. The problem with that, as you may imagine, was that I usually ended up watching the whole movie. It turns out that watching TV or surfing the Internet before bed will disturb your sleep environment and actually makes it more difficult for you to fall asleep. Furthermore, if you let the television or computer run when you drop off, the ambient light and sound they create will interrupt your sleep cycle because your brain remains unconsciously aware of its surroundings, preventing you from acquiring the deep sleep you need at night.
3. Snoring is a normal thing some sleepers do.
For years, it was a generally-accepted belief that snoring was just a normal part of sleep for certain people. Many people still believe that notion because the discovery that snoring is actually hard on the body was only made in the last half-century. In fact, snoring only occurs when there is a narrowing, or constriction, of the air passages. Such constriction will cause the soft, “floppy” tissue in the back of your throat to vibrate, and create the [sometimes very noisy] snoring sound. Snoring has been proven to be difficult on the heart [causing high blood pressure], and serious cases may lead to a diagnosis of sleep apnea, which can actually be fatal.
4. Naps don’t help if you’re sleepy.
I actually used to believe this one myself for a long time, and I avoided taking naps because I felt they only teased my appetite for sleep enough to make me grumpy when I woke up. The truth of the matter, however, is that naps are a very good way to catch up on lost sleep: studies have shown that people perform cognitive tasks better after napping for one hour or more. Be sure to time them properly, though, as taking a nap for longer than three hours or past three o’clock in the afternoon can make it difficult to fall asleep that night.
5. A lack of sleep during the week can be made up over the weekend.
This common sleep myth is possibly one of the worst habits to form, as sleeping long hours on the weekend while cutting down on them through the week can throw your body’s biological clock all out of whack. Trying to catch up on your rest over the weekend will not actually reduce fatigue during the week either, and can lead to costly mistakes at work.
6. Getting just an hour less of sleep at night will not have any effect on daytime functioning.
This lack of sleep may not make you noticeably sleepy during the day, but even slightly less sleep than you’re used to can affect your ability to think properly and respond quickly, and it can even compromise your cardiovascular health and energy balance as well as your body’s ability to fight infections– particularly if the lack of sleep continues. If you’re consistently not getting enough sleep, a sleep debt will eventually build up that will indeed make you excessively tired during the day.
7. Your body can quickly adjust to different sleep schedules.
In fact, your biological clock makes you naturally most alert during the daytime and drowsy as night falls. Thus, even if you work the night shift, you’ll simply automatically feel sleepy when nighttime comes. Most people do have the ability to “reset” their biological clock, but only with appropriately-timed cues, and even then, by just one to two hours per day at best. It can take more than a week, therefore, for you to adjust to a dramatically altered sleep/wake cycle, such as that you’d encounter when traveling across several time zones or switching from first shift at work to third.
8. Sleep is a time when your body and brain shut down for rest and relaxation.
No evidence whatsoever exists to prove that any major organ [including the brain] or regulatory system in the body shuts down completely when you sleep. Interestingly enough, certain physiological processes actually become more active while you sleep. For example, your body’s secretion of particular hormones is accelerated when you rest, and the activity of the pathways in your brain needed for learning and memory is heightened.
9. Children who don’t get enough sleep at night will show signs of sleepiness during the day.
Unlike adults, children who don’t get enough sleep at night actually become more active, on average, than normal during the following day. They may also show difficulty in both paying attention and behaving properly, so these children may be consequently misdiagnosed as having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder [ADHD].
10. The main cause of insomnia is worry.
Although worry or stress may lead to a brief bout of insomnia, a persistent inability to fall asleep [or stay asleep] at night can be caused by a number of other factors. Taking certain medications or suffering from a sleep disorder can easily keep you awake at night. Other common causes of insomnia include depression, anxiety, asthma, arthritis, or a number of other medical conditions with symptoms which become more troublesome at night.
American Medical Network. Top 10 Sleep Myths. http://sleep.health.am/sleep/more/top-10-sleep-myths/. Retrieved 06.15.09.
National Institute of Mental Health. “Power Nap” Prevents Burnout; Morning Sleep Perfects a Skill.http://www.nimh.nih.gov/science-news/2002/power-nap-prevents-burnout-morning-sleep-perfects-a-skill.shtml. Retrieved 09.15.09