Modern sleep research didn’t really begin until the middle of the 20th century with the discovery of REM sleep in the 1950s. So, it is no wonder there are so many misconceptions and myths surrounding it.
Before REM sleep was discovered, sleep was regarded in the scientific world as a “passive process,” with little being done to study it. Therefore, with the lack of available pragmatic evidence, sleep has been surrounded by many old-wives’ tales and homespun remedies.
While there are still many sleep mysteries that need to be solved, in the last few decades, scientific research has been able to help us separate quite a bit of fact from fiction. Here are 10 of the most common sleep myths debunked.
- Sleep is a passive process. It wasn’t until the 1950’s that scientists began to take studying sleep seriously. Before then, it was only considered to be the body’s “down time”- a complete absence of consciousness. Sleep, however, is a very active state for both the body and mind. Though we, mostly, remain inactive and still at night, there are several homeostatic processes occurring that we are unaware of. In fact, some brain activities like delta waves increase when we sleep. Sleep is also a time when the endocrine system increases its production of human growth hormone and prolactin- which is key to a healthy immune system. And don’t forget about dreams! Dreams are not simply an escape from reality, they are also thought to be important to building neural connections and filing away long-term memories.
- You can “catch up” on sleep. A busy work week and nights of social engagements may have kept you up later at night, or woken you up earlier in the day causing you to acquire some “sleep debt.” It is often believed that a person can catch up on the hours of sleep they may have missed during the week by sleeping more on the weekend. Studies have shown, however, that this is not adequate enough to fully restore you. The studies show that while one long night of sleep can restore your performance back to normal levels, its effect may only last for as little as six hours after waking. Dr. Elizabeth Klerman, a professor in the Division of Sleep Medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, states that “Individuals who get too little sleep during the work or school week but try to catch up on weekends may not realize that they are accumulating a chronic sleep debt.”
- Watching TV helps you fall asleep. One of the most popular pre-sleep activities in the US is watching television. People will often use TV as a sleep aid hoping the blinking light and continual noise will cause enough mental distraction to calm their busy mind for bed. Unfortunately, research has found that sleeping with the TV on can cause sleep disturbances and can even lead to depression. Televisions and other electronics emit a blue light. Light is the key regulator of our biological clocks. Blue light, specifically, regulates the body’s secretion of melatonin- the sleep hormone. When we are exposed to blue light our body will stop producing melatonin, making us feel alert and awake.
- A little alcohol will help you sleep at night. While alcohol may help you to fall asleep quicker, as it metabolizes through your body during the night, your sleep will gradually become lighter, and the chances of you waking prematurely increase. Research has proven that alcohol has numerous effects on a person’s ability to get quality restorative sleep.
- Yawning is just a sign of being tired. Even after years of scrutiny, the real causes of yawning remain a scientific mystery. One thought is that yawning assists with low oxygen levels in the lungs. This theory has been largely discredited, however, after the discovery of fetal yawning as there’s no oxygen in the womb. A more recent experiment suggests that yawning is an attempt to cool the brain. Another mystery surrounding the yawn is how contagious it is. There have been studies that show yawning triggers a contagious response in up to 60 percent of people who are exposed to it. Some scientists theorize that contagious yawning helped our ancestors coordinate times of rest and activity.
- Snoring is harmless. A 2005 poll by the National Sleep Foundation found that 32 percent of adults in the US suffer from snoring at least a few nights a week. It is so commonplace that most people feel that, though annoying, snoring is relatively harmless. However, loud and chronic snoring is a symptom of a serious, and a sometimes deadly sleep disorder, obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). If left undiagnosed, OSA can reduce your oxygen levels and cause strain on your respiratory system and heart- increasing your risk for high blood pressure, stroke, and even a heart attack.
- You should never wake a sleepwalker. One well known urban legend claims that if you wake someone up whilst they’re sleepwalking, you’ll cause such a shock that they may suffer from a heart attack, or even die. While it’s true that waking a sleepwalker may cause some distress, there is no documentation proving that it is fatal.
- Night terrors are just bad dreams. Night terrors are often mistaken for nightmares. They are most common in children, usually occurring at the start of the night- during slow-wave sleep. The “dreamer” usually wakes in a state of psychological and physiological terror, commonly accompanied by a scream. Sufferers of night terrors have no recollection of the episodes in the morning. Night terrors are thought to be the result of an irregular partial awakening from slow-wave sleep, whereas nightmares are part of a class of parasomnias. Most children will outgrow night terrors by adolescence.
- You shouldn’t take a daytime nap. Napping is often seen in a negative light; however, it can improve your performance in the workplace and can possibly save lives. According to a 1989 study from NASA, pilots who did not take naps nodded off five times as much as those who took a 25-minute nap during their shift. Still not convinced that naps are beneficial? Brilliant minds such as Einstein, John F. Kennedy, and Thomas Edison were known to enjoy their naps.
- Everyone needs eight hours of sleep at night. Though eight hours is the average number for the amount of sleep hours required, scientific studies have proven that not everyone falls into that margin. Sleep requirements vary over a person’s lifespan. Sixteen hours of sleep is normal for a newborn, and adolescents generally need a few hours more sleep than adults. Scientific studies have discovered that there may be a genetic link that allows a small percentage of adults to thrive on less sleep, functioning well at five to six hours of rest.
Getting a good night’s sleep is important to everyday life. If you are having trouble sleeping at night and fail to feel rested throughout the day, there are many effective solutions available. Participating in a sleep study can be a very valuable exercise to determine if an underlying sleep disorder is causing the diminished quality of your sleep. Schedule your sleep consultation at one of the Valley Sleep Center’s five convenient locations today.