Debunking 10 Myths About Sleep

Updated on May 12, 2018

We tend to think that we know a lot about sleep. After all, we’ve done it our whole lives and we think about it all the time. But how much of what we know is true, and how much is rumor, old wives tale, or just plain misinformation? Read on to find out the truth behind some common sleep myths.

1. Myth: You Shouldn’t Wake Up a Sleepwalker

I’m not sure why many of us believe that waking a sleepwalker will damage them, with some people even believing it can go so far as to cause their death. Actually, there’s nothing wrong with waking a sleepwalker. The person will be disoriented and confused, but they won’t suffer any long-term harm. If you don’t want to cause distress to your sleepwalking friend, just guide them gently back to bed.

2. Myth: You Can Catch Up on Missed Sleep

When we miss sleep, we call the missed hours our “sleep debt.” Unfortunately, this makes us think that we can pay it back later, just like we can with monetary debt. Sleep, though, is different. While sleeping more on one night can help some, the effects only last for about 6 hours. Then, we end up with reaction times up to 10 times slower than where we were before. Not only does trying to make up for lost sleep not really work, but it may make things worse in the long run. Better, then, to get the sleep we need when we need it.

3. Myth: Old People Don’t Require Much Sleep

While older people often struggle to sleep more than their younger counterparts do, that doesn’t mean they don’t need as much rest. In fact, they may even need more, since their bodies are breaking down faster and so much repair happens when we’re asleep.

This may be a case where we’ve taken a fact – that old people sleep less than they used to – and have given it a cause that isn’t actually there. In fact, old people don’t sleep as much because their circadian rhythms change, they are more likely to have health issues that cause sleep problems, and they spend less time in deep sleep.

4. Myth: You Swallow 8 Spiders Every Year in Your Sleep

This is actually a pretend fact that a journalist made up to prove how gullible people are. Unfortunately, we proved her point! In fact, spiders (and most insects) tend to avoid sleeping people because the small vibrations that even our tiniest movements provide (think breathing) warns them off. And, unless you have bedbugs, there isn’t anything for the spider to eat in your bed, so why would he move in?

5. Myth: There’s Nothing Wrong with Popping a Sleeping Pill

Given the way many doctors seem to prescribe sleep medication, it’s no wonder we think that the pills can’t possibly hurt us. However, the opposite is actually true. Some of the most common sleeping pills have recently been linked to things like cancer and death. While the pills are not necessarily the cause of these illnesses and death, the risk for them rose as the dose or frequency of taking the pills rose. This indicates that there is probably some causal connection present.

6. Myth: Alcoholic Drinks Help You Sleep Better

While some people will fall asleep faster after they drink, because alcohol is a depressant, their sleep quality is likely to be poor. As the body metabolizes the alcohol, it disrupts protein channels in the brain. These regulate the sleep cycles and help us move from one stage of sleep to another. When we drink before bed, we spend more time in deep sleep and less time in REM. While researchers still aren’t sure exactly why REM sleep is essential, it seems to be tied to concentration and motor skills. Many people also find themselves wide awake at 4 AM the morning after drinking, so disturbed is their sleep pattern.

7. Myth: We All Need 8 Hours of Sleep Each Night

We all have different sleep needs, though most peoples’ seem to fall somewhere between 7 and 9 hours. However, this will even vary for an individual, depending on age, gender, and what he or she does during the day. There is even a rare genetic mutation that permits people to thrive on 6 or fewer hours of sleep every night, though this is only present in about 5% of the population.

Instead of relying on the 8 hours number, figure out how much sleep you need each night. Start by getting 7 hours a night for a few nights in a row. If you’re feeling rested and waking before your alarm, you’ve found your magic sleep number. If not, add 15 minutes every few nights until you feel good all day and fall asleep after about 10 minutes at night.

8. Myth: Dreaming Only Happens During REM Sleep

While most of our dreaming does occur while we’re in REM sleep, we can actually dream in any stage. Our most vivid, crazy, and wild dreams tend to occur in a REM cycle, but we may actually spend much of the night dreaming, regardless of the cycle we’re in. Researchers aren’t entirely sure what the purpose is behind our dreams, though dreams appear to help us organize information, aid us as we process things that happened during the day, and offer assistance in dealing with the emotionally difficult things that happen to us.

9. Myth: If You Have Insomnia, it Means You Can’t Fall to Sleep

The inability to fall asleep is one type of insomnia, but there are others, too. Do you wake up in the middle of the night and find yourself unable to fall back to sleep? That’s insomnia, too. You also suffer from the condition if you wake up many times in the night, or if you wake up earlier than you should and never fall back to sleep. Insomnia has many potential causes. The best way to treat it is to find a doctor you trust and figure out what is behind yours. You can also practice better sleep hygiene and see if that helps.

10. Myth: Sleeping Pills are the Only Way to Treat Sleep Disorders

Because of the dangers associated with them, mentioned above, sleeping pills are a last resort in treating sleep disorders. Even then, they should be considered a short-term fix while you put another plan into place.

Many sleep disorders, like sleep apnea, are fairly easy to treat once you’re diagnosed. Even disorders like narcolepsy often only require taking a medication that’s not a sleeping pill.

If you have persistent insomnia, make sure you’re going to bed at the same time every night, that your room is dark and quiet, and that you’re dealing with any anxiety or depression that might be keeping you awake. Once you’ve dealt with the underlying condition, sleeping pills shouldn’t be necessary anymore.

Please remember that while our guide is thorough and well-researched, it is not a replacement for medical advice. Always consult your doctor or qualified physician with any questions or concerns you have regarding medical conditions, treatments, and advice.

Now you know some real facts about sleep! Tell your friends and neighbors, and put them to good use in your own life. Separating fact from fiction can help us all get more quality sleep and can help us lead the lives we want.

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