A good night’s sleep can be as elusive as it is essential. About one-third of Americans say they sleep less than the recommended seven to eight hours nightly. Nearly as many have symptoms of insomnia—they toss and turn instead of falling straight to sleep, wake up long before the alarm goes off, and feel poorly rested or cranky the next day.
What many Americans don’t know about good sleep practices could be compromising their ability to get a restful night’s slumber. To find out what we’ve been getting wrong about sleep, researchers from the New York University School of Medicine asked 10 experts to pinpoint some common sleep misconceptions.
In a study published online in April 2019 by Sleep Health, the researchers grouped the questionable sleep-related beliefs into several categories, including sleep duration, behaviors during sleep, daytime behaviors related to sleep, pre-sleep behaviors, and brain function and sleep.
Here’s a look at some commonly held beliefs that the study highlighted and the truth behind them.
Belief #1: Being able to fall asleep at any time or in any place is a sign of a healthy sleep system.
The truth: If you can brag that you fall asleep as soon as your head hits the pillow, it might be a sign that you’re chronically sleep deprived. Normally, it should take about 10 to 20 minutes to fall asleep. One cause of excessive daytime sleepiness is obstructive sleep apnea, a sleep disorder caused by an airway blockage that constantly interrupts breathing throughout the night, repeatedly jolting you awake and depriving you of sleep. You may not remember these sleep interruptions the next day, but you’ll likely feel lethargic.
Sleep apnea has been linked to serious health risks, including heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, and an increased risk for car accidents.
Belief #2: Your brain and body can learn to function just as well on less sleep.
The truth: Your mind and body might eventually adjust to a sleep deficit after several days, but your overall performance will decline over time even if you no longer feel sleepy. Your body can’t fully adapt to chronic sleep deficiency, and your health may eventually suffer because of it.
Belief #3: Adults naturally sleep more as they get older.
The truth: The length of sleep time does change throughout your lifetime, but in the opposite direction. As they age, most people tend to sleep fewer hours than they did when they were younger. That’s at least partly because medical conditions like an enlarged prostate or arthritis can keep you awake.
Belief #4: More sleep is always better.
The truth: Sometimes your body needs extra rest—for example, when you’re recuperating from surgery or fighting a bad case of the flu. Some studies have linked too much sleep (more than eight hours nightly) to a greater risk for such problems as heart disease, stroke, and premature death—but there’s no scientificconsensus about the effects of long sleep.
Belief #5: One night of lost sleep can have long-lasting health repercussions.
The truth: You’ll feel groggy and you won’t perform at your best after a restless night, but the effects of one missed night’s sleep won’t stick with you. Once you get a good night’s sleep, you should be back to your old self.
Behaviors during sleep
Belief #6: Lying in bed with your eyes closed is almost as good as sleeping.
The truth: Anyone who has struggled to fall asleep might wonder whether quietly lying awake is as restful as sleeping. Evidence suggests that it isn’t. Your brain, hormones, metabolism, and cardiovascular system all function differently when you’re asleep than when you’re awake.
Belief #7: If you have trouble drifting off, you should stay in bed and keep trying to sleep.
The truth: When you’re tossing and turning, it’s best to get out of bed and do something relaxing until you feel sleepy. Read a book or listen to calming music. However, avoid using digital devices, such as a smartphone or a tablet; the blue light they emit can have the opposite effect and boost your alertness.
Belief #8: Although annoying for your bed partner, loud snoring is mostly harmless.
The truth: Loud snoring is more than just annoying: It can be a sign of sleep apnea. If your partner tells you that you often snore, see a doctor to have this symptom checked out, especially if you feel sleepy during the day.
Belief #9: Sound sleepers rarely move at night.
The truth: Twitching or rolling over while you sleep is perfectly normal. It’s only when the movements become repetitive or sleep-disrupting that you could have a disorder such as restless legs syndrome or periodic limb movement disorder that needs medical attention.
Belief #10: Hitting snooze when you wake up is better than getting up when thealarm first goes off.
The truth: Every time you hit the snooze bar you interrupt sleep. The five or 10 extra minutes you get by hitting snooze aren’t going to be restorative, either. Evidence suggests that snoozing in between alarms is associated with decreased mental function and mood. If you want to sleep a little later, set your alarm for a little later.
Belief #11: If you’re having trouble sleeping at night, take an afternoon nap to make up for the sleep you’re missing.
The truth: Napping can occasionally help restore you after missing some sleep, but taking frequent afternoon siestas or sleeping for more than 20 minutes during the day could prevent you from falling asleep atnight.
Belief #12: Alcohol will help you sleep better.
The truth: A glass of wine or beer before bed might relax you into slumber more quickly, but that smoother descent into sleep comes at a price. Having a nightcap may help you fall asleep faster, but alcoholcan disturb sleep, especially the restorative stages of sleep later in the night. Having a few drinks can also worsen sleep apnea symptoms.
Drugs That Can Disrupt Sleep
A variety of factors can cause insomnia, including many medications prescribed to manage conditions like depression, arthritis, and Parkinson’s disease. Learn which classes of drugs are among the most likely to cause sleep problems.
Belief #13: A warm bedroom is better than a cool bedroom for sleep.
The truth: It’s the opposite. Research finds that a temperature of 65° F to 70° F is optimal for sleep.
Belief #14: Boredom can make you sleepy even if you’re getting adequate sleep.
The truth: Contrary to popular belief, a slow movie or a boring meeting doesn’t cause sleepiness. Instead, yawning or nodding off during an event is more likely a sign of sleep deprivation.
Belief #15: Watching TV is a good way to wind down before bed.
The truth: About half of people say they watch television just before bed, despite this not being the best way to unwind. TV viewing stimulates your brain, so you may want to find a lower-key bedtime ritual.
Brain function and sleep
Belief #16: The brain isn’t active during sleep.
The truth: While your body is in an unconscious resting state, your brain is surprisingly alert. During rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, neurons fire and brain waves increase in amplitude, much like they do when you’re awake. Sleep also helps clear your brain of harmful toxins that accumulate while you’re awake.
Belief #17: Remembering your dreams is a sign that you’ve slept well.
The truth: You do most of your dreaming during deep REM sleep, and waking up too early could interrupt your dreams. Yet the few studies that have been done on the subject haven’t found any link between sleep quality and dream recall.
This article first appeared in the August 2019 issue of UC Berkeley Health After 50.
Also see Are You a Good Sleeper?
Published August 07, 2019