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20 myths about a good night's sleep

Banking jobs are notorious for leaving their occupants deprived of sleep. - When we surveyed how much sleep finance professionals get last year we had plenty of complaints from people having five hours' sleep or going without sleep at all. 

But getting a good night's sleep may not be as straightforward as you think. A new study by academics at Pennsylvania University and the New York Department of population health among others, published in the journal Sleep Health* suggests there are various myths propagated about sleep which are preventing people from sleeping as well as they might.

We've listed them below, accompanied by the degree to which they are deemed to be false by sleep experts.

1. Being able to fall asleep “anytime, anywhere” is a sign of a healthy sleep system (95% false) 

This is not true: if you fall asleep anytime and anywhere it's quite likely to be because you're chronically sleep-deprived.

2. Many adults need five hours' sleep or less for general health (93% false) 

Again, this is not true. You really need seven hours and if you don't get that amount you are risking your cardiovascular, metabolic, mental, and immunological health.

3. Your brain and body can learn to function just as well with less sleep (93% false)

There's no evidence to suggest that the brain or the body can adapt to less than seven hours sleep. In fact, evidence suggests that you'll find it more and more difficult to stay awake the longer you are sleep deprived for. 

4. Adults sleep more as they get older (83% false) 

In fact, older adults get less sleep than younger adults - although it's not clear why this is.

5. If you can get it, more sleep is always better (65% false) 

People who sleep more than eight hours a night demonstrate more alertness than those on shorter sleep cycles. There's also evidence of increased performance. However, long sleepers also have greater chance of death (although no one really knows why).

6. One night of sleep deprivation will have lasting negative health consequences (65% false) 

This isn't necessarily true. As long as you practice "sleep recovery" and make up for the lost sleep you should be ok. - Research shows that cognitive ability declines in individuals who are sleep deprived for two nights, but recovers once they sleep more to compensate.

7. In terms of your health, it doesn't matter what time of day you sleep (93% false)

This is not true. Although sleeping during the day is better than not sleeping at all, studies of nightshift workers suggest that sleeping during the day will leave you more likely to develop diabetes, depression and cancer.

8. Lying in bed with your eyes closed is almost as good as sleeping (93% false)

Bad luck. You need rapid eye movement (REM) sleep to really benefit from sleeping.

9. If you have difficulty falling asleep, it is best to stay in bed and try to fall back to sleep (93% false)

This is wrong. If you can't fall asleep, you should follow the tenets of 'stimulus control therapy.' Namely: leave your bed, avoid blue light, and return to bed only when you are tired.

10. Although annoying for bed partners, loud snoring is mostly harmless (85% false)

Snoring is associated with adverse health outcomes - especially heart attacks.

11. A sound sleeper rarely moves at night (78% false)

Moving around while you sleep is normal. The amount you move seems to depend on age. You move the least when you're aged between 18 and 30.

12. Hitting the snooze when you wake up is better than getting up when the alarm first goes off (75% false) 

You should set an alarm and get up when it first goes off. 'Sleep fragmentations' such as those caused by snoozing are associated with reduced mental flexibility and lower subjective mood.

13. If you are having difficulties sleeping, taking a nap in the afternoon is a good way to get adequate sleep (63% false) 

Not necessarily. Napping can perpetuate insomnia. 

14. Alcohol before bed will improve sleep (83% false) 

Alcohol delays the onset of REM sleep and this is a bad thing.

15. For sleeping, it is better to have a warmer bedroom than a cooler bedroom (78% false)

A temperature between 65°F and 70°F is optimal for sleep. Higher temperatures are associated with reduced sleep health.

16. Boredom can make you sleepy even if you had adequate sleep before (75% false)

The academics said that boredom, 'may reveal underlying sleepiness, but boredom alone does not cause sleepiness.'

17. Watching television in bed is a good way to relax before sleep (70% false)

Wrong. Watching TV before bed is a cause of arousal which can cause sleep difficulties. 

18. During sleep, the brain is not active (100% false)

Absolutely wrong. All sorts of things go on during sleep, including neuronal activity in the thalamus and brainstem and the rapid firing of neurons during REM.

19. Remembering your dreams is a sign of a good night's sleep (73% false) 

The longer you sleep, the more likely you are to dream. However, you can be more likely to recall your dreams if you're woken in the middle of REM sleep - which is not, in itself, a good thing.

20. Exercising within 4 hours of bedtime will disturb your sleep (65% false)

This is wrong. There's no indication that vigorous exercise before bed impairs sleep. Instead, exercise and sleep seem to be mutually beneficial. 

* Sleep myths: an expert-led study to identify false beliefs about sleep that impinge upon population sleep health practices

Photo: Getty/noipornpan

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AUTHORSarah Butcher Global Editor
  • Fr
    10 October 2019

    I hate being a light sleeper.

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