Even in the modern age with all of the information we could possibly desire available at our finger tips, myths and falsehoods about all subjects still abound. And while we can't help clear the air about myths still circulating in other fields of interest, we can help set the record straight about common sleep myths.
From what happens during sleep and why tired teens are mislabeled as lazy, to how alcohol and television really impact your sleep, we have compiled a list of the most common fallacies about sleep, and the truths you should know.
8 of the Most Common Myths About Sleep
1. Sleep is a period of inactivity
One of the most common misconceptions about sleep is that it is a period of restful inactivity during which we simply conserve energy for the following day. This common belief couldn't be further from the truth. In reality, while it may appear that nothing active is happening while we sleep because our bodies appear to be resting, sleep is a very active time for the brain, body, and other functions.
During sleep we cycle through various stages of sleep comprised of 3 stages of non-rapid eye movement (NREM) and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.
During stages 1 & 2 of NREM we begin to drift off and disengage from our surroundings. Our breathing and heart rate become regular and our body temperature drops, preparing us for the next stages.
Stage 3 (previously believed to be comprised of 2 stages: 3 & 4) of NREM are the deepest and most restorative stages of sleep. During this stage blood supply to muscles increases, bone and tissue repair occurs, and various hormones are released throughout the body that are important for growth and development.
During REM sleep brain activity increases in a pattern similar to wakefulness and dreams are most likely to occur (although they do occur in other stages of sleep as well). REM sleep is a period in which the brain processes and consolidates memories and improves cognitive functions.
2. Snoring is common and harmless
Snoring is simply the sound caused by vibrations in the upper airways of the respiratory system due to obstructed air movement while sleeping. And while the noise itself may be completely harmless (albeit irritating to those listening to it) and common in many people, it can often be a sign of a greater problem. If the snoring is loud, chronic, and is frequently interrupted by periods in which breathing ceases temporarily and starts again with gasps or choking sounds, it can be a strong indicator of the serious health problem obstructive sleep apnea (OSA).
Untreated OSA can have severe consequences to a sufferers health including high blood pressure, heart disease, heart attack, stroke, diabetes, excessive daytime sleepiness, morning headaches, memory problems, depression, and premature death.
3. If you're always tired, you're not sleeping enough
Sure, being tired can be a sign of not getting enough sleep. However, many people believe they are getting the necessary 7-9 hours of sleep every night but never feel the restorative benefits of a full night's sleep. Having excessive daytime sleepiness is not always indicative that a person's quantity of sleep is lacking, but often a sign that the quality of their sleep is problematic. These people may not realize they are having sleep troubles during the night which is often common in people with sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, and periodic limb movement disorder.
Other sleep disorders of which the primary complaint is excessive daytime sleepiness are insomnia, narcolepsy, idiopathic hypersomnia, Kleine-Levin syndrome, and circadian rhythm sleep-wake disorders.
4. If you're not sleeping enough during the midweek, you can catch up on sleep during the weekend
The midweek can be extremely busy for many of us. Between work obligations, school, after school activities, social functions, and more, it's easy to lose sleep during the midweek with so many things going on. When you don't get the recommended 7-9 hours of sleep each night you begin to accrue a sleep debt, which is lost sleep time that should be made up for. Many people believe that the best way to make up lost sleep time is to sleep in on the weekends.
Those who experience frequent sleep loss and accrue a significant sleep debt may feel like their extended sleep on the weekend is fully restorative. Research has shown that those with chronic sleep loss felt fully restored after10 hours of sleep, but when asked to stay awake for an extended period their performance quickly began to deteriorate and their reaction times were 10x less than earlier in the day.
Furthermore, chronic sleep loss can lead to a slew of medical problems such as obesity, high blood pressure, decreased productivity, negative mood, and safety concerns at home, work, and while driving.
The best way to make up for sleep, is to sleep on a consistent schedule of 7-9 hours a night both during the midweek and on the weekend.
5. Alcohol helps you sleep
There are both elements of truth and fiction attached to this common belief. It is true that consuming alcohol at any dose can reduce sleep latency (the time it takes to fall asleep). You're also more likely to sleep deeply in the first half of sleep during the night. However, there are two major factors which contribute to make alcohol terrible for sleep.
While alcohol can make you enter the deep phases of NREM sleep faster and stay there longer, the trade-off is that you spend much less time in another important phase of sleep, REM sleep. As previously mentioned, REM sleep is the period of sleep that is vital for memory storage, learning, and processing and consolidating your mood and dealing with stress. The less time you spend in REM sleep the more likely you are to have trouble with concentrating, recalling information, and controlling your emotions the next day.
Furthermore, although you may sleep deeply in the first half of the night, once the alcohol in your body begins to metabolize it makes staying asleep much more difficult. During the second half of the night, your sleep is will often be disrupted as you wake frequently, or even wake fully without being able to return to sleep. In short, your overall sleep time and quality can be diminished from alcohol consumption.
6. Watching TV helps you fall asleep
According to a poll by the National Sleep Foundation, 50% of Americans report watching TV before bed making it the most popular pre-sleep pastime. This number increases to nearly 95% when other electronics including smart phones, computers, e-readers, and portable game consoles are accounted for.
Many people find watching television to be a calming and relaxing way to mentally wind down for the night after a busy day. However, watching TV actually robs people of sleep rather than helping promote it.
The engaging content from TV programs can keep a person up past their ideal bedtime. More than that, the light emitting from the various devices can trick the brain into believing it's daylight, which can disrupt the circadian rhythm, and curb the production of the sleep inducing hormone, melatonin.
7. Teens who fall asleep in class are lazy
There is a common belief that teenagers are lazy, unmotivated, and moody, especially when parents try and wake them up in the morning. Most parents believe that the solution is for their teenage children to go to sleep earlier in the evening so that they can wake earlier for school, and seem perplexed when teens have trouble doing so.
The real cause for many teens staying up late, wanting to sleep in, and having trouble waking early for school is because their natural circadian rhythm that doesn't align with the rest of society's. During the onset of puberty, many children (especially males) experience changes in their circadian rhythm. While the average adult requires 7-9 hours of sleep, most adolescents require 8-10. Many teens experience a circadian rhythm change called delayed sleep phase syndrome, in which melatonin production is delayed 2-3 hours later, and wanes 2-3 hours later most adults.
Teenager's natural biological clock is often set to sleep later and rise later than adults. Conflict arises because most high school start times begin early in the morning, while they still feel sleepy. Teenagers who are constantly tired in class suffer from poor performance in class as a result of sleep deprivation. To combat this many school districts are considering changing their high school start times to better reflect the natural biology of their students' sleep patterns.
8. If you're tired and driving, roll a window down or turn the radio up to stay awake
Many people falsely believe that there's not much danger to driving while drowy and that if they simply roll down the window for fresh air or turn the radio volume up that it will help them stay awake.
The truth is drowsy driving is very dangerous and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 5-6 thousand fatal crashes each year are a result of drowsy driving. Recent research has found that driving after being awake for 24 hours is equivalent to having a blood alcohol content of 0.10% due to similar symptoms of impairment and cognitive functioning.
Instead of trying to force yourself to stay awake, the best things you can do are to simply stop driving until you've had a nap. If driving with company, ask a passenger to take the wheel while you take a nap. If driving alone, pull over at a safe location (truck stop, rest stops viewpoints, etc) and get a few hours of rest before continuing your drive.
Hopefully we've helped shine a little truth on some of the most common sleep myths that some people still believe. If getting quality sleep at night is a constant struggle for you, it could be a sign of a potentially debilitating sleep disorder. If you believe you may be suffering from a sleep disorder and would like to have a sleep study performed, talk with your primary care physician about your sleep troubles or contact your local sleep clinic. If you live in Alaska and would like to see if a sleep study is appropriate for you contact The Alaska Sleep Clinic by clicking the link below to speak with a sleep educator about your symptoms in a free 10-minute phone call.