Healthy sleep has been on my mind lately, as I’ve been seriously slacking in this department as of late. And since this week is Sleep Awareness Week, courtesy of the National Sleep Foundation, I thought we could have a little fun and explore some common sleep myths and why they should be “laid to rest” once and for all. <— See what I did there? 😉
We started this sleep series at the end of last year with our post on natural ways to get a better night’s sleep, where we talked about why sleep is important, what healthy sleep looks like, and some natural ways to improve our sleep without using strong supplements or OTC meds.
Today we’re talking all about the most common sleep myths and the science and research that debunks them.
Common Sleep Myths
Have you heard of these common sleep myths? I’ll admit that I’ve believed a few of these myths for quite some time, but the latest research is changing that. Sleep can be quite an elusive topic, with loads of myths and misinformation out there. Let’s tackle some of these myths and finally lay them to rest!
Sleep Myth #1 – Naps are only for kids
Remember your daily naps in preschool? I sure do, and I never really appreciated them until I grew up and had kids of my own. Now, I crave a good daytime nap, but they’re never within reach!
Truth is, napping is great for everyone — including adults and the elderly. In fact, several studies show that napping can lead to subjective and behavioral improvements in both sleep-deprived and non sleep-deprived individuals, including speed, reaction time, alertness, and logical reasoning.
Older individuals can also benefit from a short daytime nap which can significantly reduce afternoon sleepiness and fatigue.
Sleep Myth #2 – Everyone needs 8 hours of sleep
Eight hours. We’ve all heard it over and over again, right? The magic number that makes everything all better. Well, not exactly. Every body and brain is different and has different needs with regards to sleep. Infants, for example, need between 12-15 hours of sleep, while a school-aged child will do fine on 9-11 hours.
As we ease into adulthood, the recommended amount evens out at about 7-9 hours in a 24-hr period, while an older adult drops slightly to 7-8 hours.
So how do you know how much sleep you need? It all depends on how you feel during the day. Experiment to find what works best for you. And remember: that’s 7-9 TOTAL hours in a 24-hr period — so your daytime nap totally counts!
Sleep Myth #3 – Teenagers are lazy night owls
That was totally me — guilty as charged. Except now I’m finding out that this is completely normal for teenagers!
You see, our body’s circadian rhythm — the 24-hour cycle that’s driven by our biological clocks — changes as we age. So as infants, we need a whole lot of sleep, and as we get older, we need much less. But what’s interesting about the teenage years is that during this time our biological clock is actually delayed a bit and runs a little later than usual – in fact, that internal clock runs later during the teenage years than at any other point in our lives!
One study also found that this isn’t exclusive to just human teenagers; five other mammals were studied and showed the same circadian delay right around the age of puberty, suggesting that this may be a phenomenon that happens across all mammalian species!
So what does this mean? It means that teenagers who stay up late and wake up late aren’t simply lazy; they’re just following their natural biological clocks. This has huge implications for issues like school start times where it’s been suggested that teens start school at least 2-3 hours later than they do now.
Researchers at Oxford will start a trial this year tracking nearly 32,000 students in more than 100 schools to assess whether a later school start leads to higher grades, so that should very interesting to see.
Sleep Myth #4 – You can catch up on sleep on the weekends
While you can most certainly play catch up on missed sleep, it’ll take much longer than a 2-day weekend to get back on track. And if you go right back to your sleep deprived ways on Sunday night, you’ll be just as tired as you were at the start of the weekend.
That sounds like an endless cycle, and isn’t beneficial or efficient. In fact, it can make you even sleepier the following week! Instead, if you really need to make up for lost sleep, try going to bed earlier on the weekends and getting a full night’s rest (7-9 hours), instead of sleeping in later.
And as a general rule of thumb, try to keep a regular schedule with about the same sleep and wake times to get your body into a nice sleep/wake cycle with little fluctuation.
Sleep Myth #5 – More sleep is better than less sleep
Did you know there is such thing as too much sleep? What?! That’s crazy talk!
Nope, it’s true. Too much sleep can be just as detrimental to our health as too little sleep, as both can throw off the body’s circadian rhythm. Too much sleep has been linked to a number of health conditions, including obesity, headaches, heart disease, and depression.
So, as tempting as it might be to doze off for more than 9 hours at a time, it’s just not worth the health risks. Once or twice probably won’t do you any harm, but just don’t make it a regular habit. 🙂
Sleep Myth #6 – The older you get, the less sleep you need
This is one of the more common sleep myths I’ve come across, but the truth is we need just about the same amount of sleep throughout our adult lives, more or less.
But while the amount of sleep we need generally does not change, our sleep patterns do change as we age. Older people may get less sleep at night because of frequent night wakings, earlier wake times, and lighter sleep, but they do make up for it with daytime naps and early bedtimes.
Sleep Myth #7 – Exercising at night will keep you up
That’s not necessarily true, as the effects of exercise on sleep can vary greatly from person to person.
One study found that vigorous late-night exercise does not disturb sleep quality, and another study found that moderate exercise neither disrupts nor enhances sleep. The samples for both of these studies, however, were quite small — less than 20 subjects each.
A much larger, nationally-representative study of 2600 men and women found that 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity a week provided a 65 percent improvement in sleep quality.
Bottom line: Regular exercise is always a good idea. How much exercise, what time of day, and how close to bedtime you should exercise all depends on your individual personality and lifestyle. If you’re more of a morning person, then do it in the morning; if you’re an evening person, there’s no harm in working out before bedtime, though you may want to give yourself 1-2 hours for your body to cool down before jumping into bed.
Sleep Myth #8 – Your brain rests while you sleep
No way! While your body definitely gets some much needed rest while you sleep, your brain is functioning at nearly full speed, working hard at keeping itself — and you! — healthy and in tip-top shape.
The discovery of REM (rapid eye movement) has given us incredible insight to what’s going on in our brains while we’re sleeping. For example, did you know our brains can actually make decisions while we sleep? Tell me that’s not the coolest thing ever!
Memory is another big job our brains are tackling while we sleep; creating memories, consolidating older memories, and building connections between newer and older information. So a lack of sleep can have severely negative effects on memory and recall.
Perhaps most importantly, our brains are also busy ridding our bodies of toxins while we sleep. A study funded by the National Institutes of Health found that “sleep changes the cellular structure of the brain,” allowing for cerebrospinal fluid to flow rapidly through the brain’s plumbing system, called the glymphatic system. In contrast, the fluid barely flowed when their subjects (lab mice) were awake.
Because previous studies suggest that toxic molecules involved in neurodegenerative disorders (like Alzheimer’s) accumulate in the space between brain cells, the flushing of the glypmphatic system that happens while we sleep is vital for healthy brain function.
Ready to lay these common sleep myths to rest once and for all? I sure am. What are you doing to get a better night’s sleep?