Have difficulty sleeping? You may think you know the dos and don’ts of getting a good night’s sleep. But there are a lot of myths out there about sleep that only create more problems when it comes to getting the rest we need. We asked Michelle Drerup, PsyD, of the Cleveland Clinic Sleep Disorders Center, the creator of the online program GO! to Sleep, to share the top 10 sleep myths and the truth behind them.
1. Myth: You need eight hours of sleep a night.
Truth: Everyone has different sleep needs.
The amount of sleep we need varies from person to person. For some, it may be eight, but for others it may be six. The key is to figure out your individual sleep needs based on how long you have to sleep to feel rested and restored the next day.
2. Myth: More sleep is always better.
Truth: Studies show that excess sleep is not necessarily healthy.
Studies have found that people who sleep between six and eight hours per night actually have the lowest death rates. It’s unclear whether sleeping longer causes poor health, or is actually a symptom of other health issues, some problems do correlate with spending more time in bed including obstructive sleep apnea, depression and uncontrolled diabetes.
3. Myth: Sleeping late on weekends makes up for lost sleep Monday through Friday.
Truth: Consistency is best—our bodies prefer that we rise at the same time every morning.
A lack of sleep during the week and “catching up” over the weekend upsets your circadian rhythms and makes it even harder to get refreshing sleep. Which is why Sunday nights tend to be the most difficult night for people to fall asleep. (If you sleep in until 11 a.m. on Sunday morning, you can’t expect your body to be ready for sleep at 10 p.m. just so you can wake up at 6 a.m. Monday.)
4. Myth: Watching TV in bed can help you wind down and fall asleep.
Truth: Watching TV close to bedtime and especially in the bedroom hinders quality sleep.
Television is stimulating (the noise, the flashing light, the engagement of your brain), and certain nighttime shows add tension to the mix—which obviously doesn’t help you relax and get ready to snooze. If you watch TV while in bed, you’ll also wind up associating being in bed with being awake.
5. Myth: When you can’t sleep, you should just rest in bed.
Truth: When you can’t sleep, you should get out of bed.
Lying in bed for long periods of time not sleeping leads to “conditioned arousal,” which means that you learn to pair the bed and bedroom with being awake rather than with being asleep—a problem for anyone experiencing sleep problems.
6. Myth: OTCs are safer than prescription sleep aids.
Truth: OTCs have a host of side effects you’re better off avoiding.
The drowsiness caused by the antihistamines in over-the-counter medications might end up making you feel drowsy (and lousy!) the next day. Both OTC and prescription sleep aids can also lose their effectiveness over time. If you’re going to try a sleep aid, discuss it with your doctor first—the solution might be medication, or a treatment plan including lifestyle changes.
7. Myth: Alcohol helps you sleep.
Truth: Alcohol can help you fall asleep—but not stay asleep.
Alcohol does make you feel drowsy, which can help you fall asleep. But it creates problems during the second half of your sleep cycle when the relaxing effects have worn off. Alcohol usually suppresses deep sleep causing insomnia, light or fragmented sleep, and more awakenings. If you’re going to drink in the evening, limit your consumption and stop a few hours before bedtime.
8. Myth: If you’re experiencing insomnia, napping can help reduce exhaustion.
Truth: If you’re having sleep problems, napping often makes the problem worse.
For people without sleep problems, a short nap can be very helpful. Research suggests that a 45-minute daytime nap can improve memory function, lower blood pressure, and possibly reduce death by cardiovascular events. However, for people with insomnia, napping can reduce your chances of sleeping through the night.
9. Myth: It doesn’t matter if you miss sleep—you’ll just be tired.
Truth: Sleep is essential for your body to perform routine maintenance.
Sleep is more than just a period of rest. During sleep, your body works hard—creating long-term memories and doing damage repair from the day. Sleep allows your brain to better process new experiences and information, which leads to understanding and retention. While you’re sleeping, your body also produces extra protein molecules that help your immune system and strengthen your ability to fight infection.
10. Myth: Exercising before bed makes you tired and, therefore, helps you sleep.
Truth: Exercising can help sleep, but not right before bed.
While it’s true that exercise can help you sleep, doing it too close to bedtime can result in the opposite effect. Exercise stimulates your heart, brain and muscles, and it raises your body temperature, which is counterproductive to sleep. If timed correctly, regular daily exercise can help you sleep longer and more soundly, as well as make you feel more awake during the day.