15 sleep myths debunked

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS, for MDLinx
Published May 28, 2019

Key Takeaways

Despite a better understanding of the genetic, physiologic, and environmental factors involved in sleep-wake regulation, many Americans still don’t get enough sleep—as many as one-third, in fact, according to the National Sleep Foundation. One potential reason is the public’s lack of information or even misinformation about sleep. In other words, a lot of people still believe a lot of common myths when it comes to getting shuteye. These myths aren’t supported by current scientific evidence and are likely detracting from Americans’ sleep health.

For your patients’ health—and your own—here are 15 sleep myths that have been debunked by sleep experts.

Myth 1: It doesn’t matter what time of day you sleep

Fact: Although sleeping during the day is better than no sleep at all, it’s certainly not ideal. For instance, night-shift workers—who typically get less sleep and have lower sleep quality than day workers—are at higher risk for depression, diabetes, breast cancer, and all-cause mortality.

Myth 2: Hitting ‘snooze’ is better than getting up right away

Fact: Sleep disruptions are bad. Fragmentations in sleep caused by the snooze function are linked to reduced mental flexibility and decreased subjective mood. You’re better off setting the alarm for the exact time you need to get up instead of breaking up your sleep by “snoozing” between alarms.

Myth 3: Your brain adapts so that it can function just as well on less sleep

Fact: Although people can get used to decreased amounts of sleep, with their circadian rhythms adjusting, continued lack of sleep poses health consequences. People whose sleep is restricted do report that their feelings of sleepiness level off, yet their inability to stay awake increases.

Myth 4: Being bored makes you sleepy

Fact: Listening to a boring lecture won’t put you to sleep on its own. Rather, boredom may more readily unmask sleep deprivation, resulting in sleep. Just being bored, however, doesn’t make you sleepy.

Myth 5: Exercise at night disturbs sleep

Fact: The rationale that exercise before bed will amp you up and keep you from sleeping is false. Researchers have shown no adverse effect of nighttime exercise on sleep. In fact, exercise and sleep can be mutually beneficial.

Myth 6: Falling asleep anytime or anywhere is a sign of a good sleeper

Fact: Being able to “sleep on a clothesline” can actually be a sign of sleep deprivation, possibly due to obstructive sleep apnea or some other sleep problem. People who have sleep apnea are at higher risk for motor vehicle accidents.

Myth 7: Some adults only need 5 (or fewer) hours of sleep per night

Fact: Habitual insufficient sleep can lead to metabolic, mental health, and immunological health consequences. Although a “short sleep” phenotype may exist for some individuals who can function on 5 hours of sleep, most adults should get the recommended 7 hours of sleep a night.

Myth 8: The more sleep, the better

Fact: Although we need extra sleep when recovering from sleep loss or while otherwise healing, the jury is still out on the effects of long sleep times on health and mortality. True, children need more sleep for behavioral development. But adults with habitually long sleep times may actually have undiagnosed chronic conditions. Also, people with insomnia shouldn’t try to compensate for less sleep by staying in bed longer. In fact, cutting back on time in bed is one of the most effective treatments for insomnia.

Myth 9: The older you get, the more you sleep

Fact: Duration of sleep varies greatly during the course of a lifetime. Instead of getting more sleep, older adults actually tend to sleep less, in part due to health conditions. But this doesn’t mean that older adults need less sleep than younger adults, but rather that they just get less sleep.

Myth 10: One night of sleep deprivation poses enduring health consequences

Fact: The effects of one night of sleep deprivation are short-term, such as lapses in attention and other cognitive difficulties, as well as increased blood pressure. Cognitive and physiological performance returns to normal following sleep recovery.

Myth 11: A warmer bedroom is better than a cooler one for sleeping

Fact: Hot and stuffy bedrooms are linked to worse sleep. Instead, a bedroom temperature of 65-70° F is recommended for best sleep.

Myth 12: Sound sleepers don’t move much during sleep

Fact: Occasional movement and small cortical arousals are a part of normal sleep patterns, and the number of these movements varies during a lifetime. The fewest number of movements occurs from ages 18-30 years.

Myth 13: The brain isn’t active during sleep

Fact: This belief is false for at least three reasons. First, EEG brain waves become larger in amplitude at the level of the brain stem and thalamus in the sleeping patient. Second, sleep is characterized by periods of REM sleep activity, which includes eye movement, rapid firing of neurons, and loss of muscle tone. Third, during sleep, neurotoxic waste is cleared from the brain, thus making sleep restorative.

Myth 14: Watching television in bed gets you relaxed

Fact: An estimated 50% of Americans watch television 30 minutes before going to bed. But this pre-sleep arousal has been shown to lead to sleep difficulties.

Myth 15: Napping during the day helps counteract insomnia

Fact: In people with insomnia, napping during the day can actually decrease homeostatic sleep drive, perpetuate insomnia, and lead to health consequences. In people without insomnia, though, a nap can help supplement insufficient sleep.

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