We talk a lot of about sleep: the best conditions for catching some zzz's, how to stop waking up in the middle of the night, why you have nightmares, and the list goes on. So as an avid Byrdie reader, you might think you know all there is to know about sleep, right? To test that theory, we did some research, uncovering some common snooze-related misconceptions that still persist.
Scroll through to find out how well you know sleep fact from fiction!
Counting sheep may be the age-old solution to sleeplessness, but sleep scientists says this method is too repetitive and boring to have an impact on your brain. In fact, it actually makes it more likely for distracting thought patterns to enter your mind, making it even harder to relax. Instead, try visualizing a relaxing scene, like waves crashing on a beach. The other issue here is staying in bed. If you’ve been trying to fall asleep (or fall back asleep) for 15 to 20 minutes unsuccessfully, experts agree it’s time to get out of bed. The longer you spend tossing and turning in bed, the less you associate your bed with a place of rest, which (not surprisingly) makes falling asleep more difficult. Get out of bed and go something relaxing, like listening to soothing music—just don’t turn on all of the lights or look at the clock.
Though some people may proudly announce they sleep only four or five hours a night and say they function just fine, that’s simply not the case. Quality sleep is vital to our health and well-being. And sleep experts agree the average adult needs between seven and nine hours of sleep each night for optimum performance, happiness, and safety. Even if you don’t feel sleepy, when you haven’t gotten adequate sleep your brain doesn’t work as well as it could. You may not realize it, but you don’t think or react as quickly as you would if you were well-rested. There is one caveat, however: scientists have discovered that around two percent of the population can function efficiently on less than six hours of sleep.
Women need more sleep than men. Why? Because women and men use their brains differently. One of the primary functions of sleep is to allow your brain to recover and repair itself. The more you work your brain during the day, the greater recovery required (aka the more sleep you need). Women tend to multi-task, focusing on several things at once, which means they use more of their brains. But don’t get too excited. Experts say it’s an average of 20 minutes more sleep that women need.
Alcohol is a natural sedative, so it can actually help you fall asleep faster, which is why some people view a pre-bedtime glass of vino as a sleep aid. But that’s only half of the story. As your body metabolizes alcohol, the chemicals that are produced disrupt your sleep cycle. Your sleep becomes progressively lighter, and once the alcohol clears your system, your brain becomes hyper-aroused and you wake up, so you don’t get the deep, restful sleep your body needs.
When you have a job (or any commitment, really) that requires you to be awake when your body clock says it’s time for sleep, your body never fully adjusts. Yes, your internal clock is affected by artificial light (that’s why reading on your iPad before bed can keep you awake), but it’s really set by natural light. During the hours of darkness, our bodies produce the sleep hormone melatonin, whether you’re asleep during that time or not. Even if it feels like you’ve adjusted to shift work, the quality of sleep is never quite where it should be.
People who exercise regularly fall asleep faster and sleep more soundly, but the regularly part is key. Exercising sporadically, on the other hand, can make it more difficult to fall asleep because your body is not expecting the stimulation. We already know your next question—does timing matter? Most experts agree that exercising before bed will not help you fall asleep, but how exactly it affects people can vary. Exercising raises your body’s core temperature, which is problematic because cooler body temperatures induce sleep. It can take as long as six hours for your body temperature to drop, or it could be closer to one. You just have to figure out how your body responds.
Even though sleep patterns may shift as you age, once you reach adulthood the amount of sleep you need does not. The reason many older people end up sleeping less is because as we grow into old age, it becomes harder to stay in deep sleep. Studies have shown that older people struggle to sleep through the night, and therefore do sleep less. Some people misinterpret this as a sign that the body needs less sleep, but it actually has nothing to do with a drop in need.
How well do you know your sleep facts? Which of these myths surprised you the most?