We know that sleep plays an essential role in our health and wellbeing, and that we need to get enough sleep to function properly throughout the day.
But what do we really know about sleep? Are some of the assumptions we make about sleep really true?
Sleep theories vs science
There are endless myths and theories thrown around about sleep, and it’s no wonder, since it’s one of the most mysterious things we do as human beings. Theories passed down from family, and anecdotes from friends about not needing sleep, or catching up on sleep, all add to some commonly held beliefs that aren’t backed by any scientific evidence.
Seemingly harmless, it’s important to set the record straight to prevent these myths from leading to poor sleep habits!
Sleep science has come a long way over the past decades, and we can now find more conclusive answers to some of the most common questions about how sleep works, how much we need, and why it’s important. Let’s take a look at some of the most common myths and misconceptions and see which ones can be debunked!
Myth: Drinking before bedtime helps you sleep
Many people will swear by the effect of a nightcap before bed and its ability to help them nod off and enjoy a good night of quality sleep.
Alcohol may help you fall asleep in the first place by relaxing you and inducing sleepiness—this is thanks to a chemical called adenosine—yet, as the night goes on and the effects of alcohol wear off, your sleep is usually disrupted and you’re prevented from progressing through the various sleep cycles.
It’s best to find an alternative way to relax and wind down, so that your body can fall asleep naturally without being jolted awake as the adenosine wears off.
Myth: If you nap during the day, you don’t need as much sleep at night
Who doesn’t love a good nap during the day? Many people swear by an afternoon or early evening nap, saying that it makes up for a lack of sleep at night.
While a short nap can provide a much-needed energy lift, it’s not a substitute for sufficient sleep during the night. As you sleep overnight, your body cycles through some important stages or cycles of sleep, each with its own benefits and processes. During different stages of the night, your body produces different hormones that are key to why sleep plays such an essential role in our health.
While napping might help you to feel a little bit less affected by the effects of insufficient or disrupted sleep, it’s not truly possible to use naps to “catch up on” sleep. Relying on naps can even throw your sleep schedule further out by making it harder to fall asleep at night.
This is because napping relieves some of the pressure and sleepiness that builds up naturally throughout the day – part of what’s called homeostatic control. Napping for too long can also leave you feeling sluggish rather than energised (keep it to a maximum of 30 minutes!).
Myth: Falling asleep at any time, anywhere is a sign that you’re a good sleeper
We’ve all known that friend who could fall asleep just about anywhere, any time. What an amazing sleeper they are, right? If only we could fall asleep so easily!
Wrong! When someone is out like a light the moment they relax into a comfy chair, or when they can’t get through a movie without nodding off, it’s usually a sign that something isn’t quite right with their sleep.
Sleep deprivation, sleep apnoea, or even narcolepsy could be causing this daytime drowsiness. Insufficient vitamins or minerals in the body can also have you falling into a micro-sleep whenever your body senses it has a moment to rest.
In any case, this myth is a dangerous one as it makes light of what could be quite a serious sleep issue. Chances are, that friend who seems like they could fall asleep on command is not sleeping through the night.
Myth: The older you get, the more sleep you need
It’s commonly believed that the older we get as adults, the more sleep we need, with many jokes around needing to get to bed early because we’re getting too old to stay up late.
The opposite is often true, with younger adults tending to sleep more than older people. As our bodies age, our circadian rhythm can be affected, making it harder to sleep as long as we’d like to. It’s perhaps people’s response to this trend that has created the misconception. It would make sense that older people may try to get to bed earlier in order to get as much sleep as possible as they work against increasing difficulty.
Myth: You only dream during the REM phase, the rest of the time your brain shuts down
People often believe that dreaming only happens during the REM cycle of sleep, and that the rest of the time, our brain more or less “shuts down”.
While it’s true that our most intense and often bizarre dreaming usually occurs during REM sleep, dreaming can occur during non-REM sleep stages too. The patterns of activity that occur during the REM (rapid eye movement) phase of sleep are similar to those that occur when we’re awake, which explains the more vivid dreams.
Far from shutting down during the non-REM phases of sleep, our brains are constantly active, working to process thoughts, memories, and emotions. This is why sleep is often seen as so instrumental for creative thinking and problem solving!
Myth: You can’t improve your sleep
Having tried various techniques or even medication, many people live their lives with insomnia, sleep deprivation, or sleep disruption, suffering under the misconception that there’s nothing that can be done.
It’s important to realise that there are many evidence-based techniques and therapies that can have real and significant results. Sleep therapy has come a long way over the past decades, so particularly if you’ve not sought help for a long time, it’s worth trying again to find the right help and approach that works for you.
Book a consultation with our sleep coach, or speak to your doctor to find out what treatment is available. Always seek professional help if your sleep problems are interfering with your daily life, and investigate whether a more chronic or serious issue is the underlying cause.