21 sleep myths demystified

How many hours should I sleep for? What’s the quickest way to fall asleep? Why do I wake up tired, even after 8 hours sleep?

There are a lot of misconceptions out there about sleep.


1: You can catch up on lost sleep the next day

Think you can have a wild night out and simply catch up on your sleep the next night?  Think again.  The truth is that you can’t repay a sleep debt that easily.  Even if you catch up on the exact amount of sleep you’ve missed, your problem isn’t solved.  Dr David Gozal of the University of Chicago says “getting extra sleep does not immediately restore all systems”, as your brain and metabolism may take longer to recover.


2: Watching TV before bed will help you to fall asleep

Logic suggests that a late night repeat of Doctors could lull almost anyone in to a peaceful slumber.  In reality, the blue light given off by TVs, smartphones, tablets, and other electrical devices has been given a lot of bad press.  Exposure to this blue light stops our bodies from producing the sleep hormone, melatonin; so instead of feeling sleepy, it can actually make you feel more alert.


3: Snoring means you’re getting a good sleep

Research suggests that people snore when in several different stages of sleep.  That’s why your partner might snore straight after they drift off, but stop once they’re fast asleep, or vice versa.  Studies show that although snorers often appear to be in a really heavy sleep, snoring can actually increase daytime sleepiness for the snorer themselves.  Avoiding sleeping on your back, or using products like Throat Sprays or Nasal Strips are all ways of trying to relieve your snoring.


4: Having a nightcap will help you to sleep soundly

Alcohol is a sedative.  So, a little bedtime brandy may help you to fall asleep more quickly.  But, that doesn’t mean the sleep you get is good quality.  Alcohol actually interferes with the processes your body goes through during a normal night of sleep.  When you’re drunk, you only go through 1-2 cycles of REM sleep (the bit where you’re most likely to dream), instead of the 6-7 you need to wake feeling fully refreshed.


5: Waking in the night means you’ve had a bad sleep

If you find that you wake for an hour or two each night and struggle to fall back asleep, it might not be such a bad thing.  Research suggests that bimodal sleep is the way people used to sleep before the invention of artificial light.  This method involves sleeping for around 4 hours, waking for 1 or 2, and then sleeping for another 4 hours.  You can get a perfectly restful sleep in a number of different cycles. This great infographic by bed manufacturer Dreams lists some of the cycles, but be warned – they don’t all fit in with modern life!


6: You need less sleep as you get older

In reality, you need the same amount of sleep to function when you’re 81 as you did at 21.  Professor Adrian Williams from the London Sleep Centre says “it’s a myth that we need less sleep as we get older, but we are less able to stay asleep as we age”.  The reason older people often get up much earlier is that sleep is much more difficult as you approach your twilight years.  Melatonin, the sleep hormone, is available on prescription for those over 55; a more long-term remedy than sleeping tablets.


7: The more sleep you can get, the better

It’s common knowledge that sleep deprivation is detrimental not only to your energy levels, but mood, appetite, and other important aspects of your life.  However, recent research suggests that having too much sleep is just as bad for you.  Studies show that sleeping more than 8 hours a night can put you at risk of dying earlier.  There goes our Sunday lie in!


8: A warm, cosy bedroom will help you to sleep

Wear fleece pyjamas under your 13.5 tog duvet all year long?  You’re doing it all wrong!  Whilst your mum might have told you being ‘snug as a bug in a rug’ was vital to drifting off, it’s actually easier to fall asleep if you’re cool.  Neurology Specialist, Dr Christopher Winter says “sleeping in a hot environment has been shown to increase wakefulness”.  He recommends 60-67 degrees Fahrenheit (that’s 15-20 degrees Celsius) as an optimal temperature for your bedroom.


9: Exercising before bed will help you to sleep

It’s true that exercise can help to use lots of energy and get your body tired enough for sleep, but timing is crucial.  If you exercise too close to bedtime, your body temperature will be raised.  And, as we learnt from the last myth, you need to cool down before you can fall asleep.  Make sure to give yourself an hour break between those sit-ups and bedtime to let your body get ready for sleep.


10: Hitting snooze will help you to get a little more rest

If you think the 9 minutes sleep your alarm gives you between rings is helping you to feel more refreshed, think again.  Any sleep you manage to get after you hit snooze will be fragmented and poor quality.  If you wake up feeling unrefreshed, it might be a sign that you need more sleep…or it could be that your alarm is going off when you’re in the deepest stage of sleep. SleepJudge adds that technology affects sleep quality too. Almost everyone sets an alarm on their phones nowadays and this can cause broken sleep. Ask yourself if you’ve ever woken up in the middle of the night because your phone pinged to alert you of a new message or update? Certain apps, such as SleepCycle (shown below), track your sleep and use a gentle alarm to wake you in the lightest stage of sleep.  The theory is that this leaves you feeling more refreshed, so you shouldn’t need the snooze button whatsoever!


11: You can get by on just 4 hours sleep

Margaret Thatcher, Bill Clinton, and Madonna are all renowned for having (successful?) careers on the back of 4 hours sleep a night.  This isn’t a great example for the majority of people to follow.  Getting less than 6 hours sleep for a long period of time can have a negative impact on your body.  Recent research has even shown that under sleeping can have visible effects on your skin.  Leaving you with more wrinkles, open pores, and spots.


12: Yawning is a sign of tiredness

Nope.  Wrong.  So, what is it a sign of?  The current accepted theory is that yawning is a way of your body cooling your brain down, helping you to think more clearly. Still, we don’t think “sorry boss, my brain was just a bit hot” is going to help you get away with yawning in your big morning meeting.


13: Snoring is funny

YouTube videos of snoring dogs have millions of hits for one reason.  They’re funny.  But snoring has a really serious side. It could be a sign that you’re overweight, that you’re drinking too much, or that you’re suffering from a condition called sleep apnoea.  Snoring is a sign of a partial blockage in your airways, meaning air struggles to get through to your lungs.  So if you’re a snorer, your body is deprived of the oxygen it needs when you sleep. There’s plenty of worrying research out there linking snoring to cancer and other conditions like heart disease and stroke.  


14: Sleeping less keeps you thin

The more time you spend awake and active, the more calories you will burn, right?  This might seem logical, but research suggests that getting less sleep can actually contribute to weight gain. Sleep deprivation causes higher levels of Cortisol, the stress hormone, and Ghrelin, the hunger hormone.  These hormones increases your appetite, meaning you are likely to take in far more calories than you would if you had slept well.


15: Only men snore

Sorry ladies, this one is definitely a myth.  In our YouGov survey 62% of women admitted to snoring.  Snoring is especially common during and after the menopause, when a loss of muscle tone in your throat makes the tissues more likely to vibrate.  Women in the last trimester of pregnancy often find that they start to snore too.  This is because you have extra blood in your body, meaning that blood vessels expand, your nasal membranes swell, and you start to find it hard to breathe through your nose.


16: Children who don’t get enough sleep will feel tired the next day

It’s true that if a child stays up past their bed time, they may well appear tired the next day.  However, this is not always the case.  Many strong links have been made between sleep deprivation in children and the common symptoms of conditions such as ADHD.  This means that children who have suffered poor sleep may exhibit hyperactive behaviour, temper tantrums, and “explosions” of emotion.


17: Staying awake before a test will help you get a better result

Pulling an all-nighter is daft; especially before an exam.  A lack of sleep leads to difficulties concentrating, meaning you won’t be able to concentrate on your test.   Research also shows that sleep is the key to consolidating memories and storing them long term. So, if you don’t sleep, by the time your exam starts you will have completely forgotten those notes you were scribbling down at 2am.


18: An afternoon nap will stop you sleeping at night

In Britain, most managers would give us a good telling off if we napped at our desks. Napping is associated with babies and toddlers here in the UK, but it would be seen as strange in some countries not to take a little early-afternoon siesta.  A little snooze can help to recharge your body and feel more alert in the afternoon. The only danger is if the nap exceeds around 40 minutes, your body may think you’re looking to go asleep for a long time, and you’ll wake up feeling groggy.  A 30 minute nap at around 1pm should be perfect (if your boss will allow it!).


19: If you can’t sleep, stay in bed and you will eventually drift off

Associating your bed with sleep is a really important factor in sleeping well.  So, lying there wide awake when you’re not ready to sleep may not be a great idea.  Bupa recommend that you should get out of bed and do “something relaxing if you’re unable to fall asleep within 15 to 20 minutes”.


20: Sleep apnoea only affects overweight, middle-aged men

Snoring is a partial blockage of your airway during sleep, sleep apnoea is a complete blockage.  There is a common misconception that only overweight men who have passed middle age will suffer from this condition.  It’s true that you’re more likely to develop sleep apnoea if you are male, but a huge number of factors can contribute to the onset of the condition.  These include nasal congestion, age, gender, obesity, and even genetic factors like your craniofacial structure (the shape your head is on the inside!).  Even children can suffer from sleep apnoea.  If you snore heavily, it’s always worth getting checked out, just to be safe.


21: You eat spiders in your sleep

Be honest.  This is the one you’ve been waiting for.  Rob Crawford, Curator of Arachnids at Burke Museum says “For a sleeping person to swallow even one live spider would involve so many highly unlikely circumstances”.  So you can sleep easy in the knowledge that Incey Wincey won’t be climbing down your windpipe tonight.  But…wait…according to the FDA, there are fragments of insects in most of the foods we eat every day anyway.  Yum.



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