From sleep debt and snoring, to dreaming and beyond, World Sleep Day on March 19 zeroes in on a topic that is so critical to our health and wellbeing. Especially during a time of year when we lose an hour to daylight savings, it’s important to bust some myths that impact our understanding of how to catch our best Zzzzzzs. Here is what you need to know.
The Myth: You can catch up on sleep another time if you’re sleep-deprived
The reality: Sleep debt (or sleep deficit, as it is otherwise known) is a real thing, and it stems from consistently missing out on the minimum amount of sleep required to allow your body to properly rest up. While we may naturally want to “catch up” on those missed hours of sleep, resetting the snowballing impact of chronic sleep-deprivation is more difficult to do. Research suggests, it can take up to four days to make up for one hour of sleep, and up to nine days to help us return to our natural sleep baseline.
Myth: Can’t sleep? Just count sheep
The reality: A 2002 Oxford study found that counting sheep is just too boring to distract people for too long. In the study, they divided participants into three groups: Those who were asked to visualize a calming, picturesque scene; those who were asked to think of something distracting, like counting sheep; and the third group was the control group. It turns out the best approach was to focus on picturing a calming scene. The researchers theorized that this image visualization took up more brain power and therefore distracted participants away from worrisome thoughts that would otherwise keep them awake.
The Myth: Warm milk is a sleep aid
The reality: While people around the world turn to warm milk as a sleep aid, the research on this method’s effectiveness isn’t so clear. The reasoning is that milk contains tryptophan, which is linked to falling asleep faster. However, we still don’t know if milk itself contains enough of the amino acid to actually make a difference in the amount we’d typically drink.
The Myth: Red wine helps you sleep more soundly
The reality: While you may certainly hit the hey faster after having a few glasses of red wine, the quality of sleep you get will be significantly lower. There are a number of studies that have looked into the impact of alcohol on sleep, and recent research out of Korea similarly found that while sleep may arrive faster after drinking, there are more sleep disturbances. Some scientists have theorized that this may be due to the high sugar content found in wine and other alcoholic beverages, giving our system a caloric boost when we least want one.
The Myth: Naps help you sleep better at night
The reality: While it may seem like a good idea to make up for lost sleep in the daytime to help set you back on track, this can actually make it harder to fall sleep at night. In fact, longer naps can actually make you feel more tired in the short term, not less. So if you must, catnap, but for no longer than 20 minutes. The only exception to this rule is for shift workers, who don’t have a consistent bedtime as a result of their shifting schedule.
The Myth: Scrolling on your phone will help you fall asleep
The reality: While reading has been linked to helping you fall asleep, reading on your phone may actually be doing more harm than good. Research is increasingly showing that the blue light emanating from our devices while we scroll actually suppresses our natural production of melatonin – the sleep hormone.
Related: This is how I fought insomnia and won.
The Myth: You can train your body to get used to less sleep
The reality: While life circumstances may require us to simply roll with the punches and keep going on whatever sleep we can get, our bodies never really fully “get used to” not sleeping an adequate amount. Eventually, not sleeping enough will have an impact on our cognitive function, short-term memory, and more, research suggests.
The Myth: Everyone needs eight to 10 hours of sleep
The reality: The short explanation is that the amount of sleep you need depends on your stage of life. While those 18 to 64 may typically need seven to nine hours of sleep per night, kids and teens will often require more. Additionally, each person is different, some adults needing as little six hours of sleep per night, and others needing more than eight to feel fully recharged.
The Myth: The more you sleep, the healthier you are
The reality: While this might make sense in theory, needing 10 or more hours of sleep per night may actually be an indication that something is wrong, health-wise. Similarly, the length of sleep is not the only thing that matters. The quality of sleep also matters. While you may be in bed for longer, if that sleep is disrupted (for example, due to sleep apnea or other sleep disorders), you may still not be getting the sleep you need. Instead, even if you sleep for less time, but are able to reach that deep, REM sleep.
You may also like: Why the best sleep of your life happens with your dog (and not your boyfriend).
The Myth: Everyone snores and it’s no big deal
The reality: While light snoring shouldn’t be an issue for most people, loud or chronic snoring may be a signal more is at play, researchers say; specifically, it could be an indication of a serious breathing disorder called Obstructive Sleep Apnea and that requires treatment. It also fragments sleep, leading to those who suffer from it to wake up feeling exhausted even if they put in their usual eight hours a night.
Related: Can laughter lead to a good sleep?
The Myth: Your brain shuts off during sleep
The reality: Your brain is doing important work while you sleep. While the pattern of your brain activity does shift when you’re unconscious, it does ramp up to levels similar to when you’re awake during Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. In fact, science is just beginning to unravel how your brain uses sleep time to process emotions, memory and to help support effective thinking.