Sleep myths and facts

Sleep myths and facts

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Sleep myths and facts

Even with all the facts you've learned so far, I'm sure you still have some nagging doubts about the many stories you've heard about how others sleep, things you can do to get better sleep, and what sleep really does for you. Many of these tales are left over from before researchers began to study and understand sleep. Before we address how to improve your sleep habits, let's clear up some of the most common sleep myths.

You need less sleep as you get older
As children, many of us had grandparents who always seemed to be up at the crack of dawn, cleaning the house and making a glorious breakfast. So it seemed as if older people didn't need as much sleep as other adults.

This memory overlooks a couple of things: Grandma and Grandpa were probably in bed by 9 p.m., and they often disappeared in the early afternoon to take a nap. In truth, older people need just as much sleep as younger adults. They may have trouble getting it because they wake up more frequently during the night, but total sleep need does not decrease much with age.

Alcohol helps you sleep better
Alcohol is not an effective sleep aid. Its sedative effect may make you fall asleep faster, but it has a harmful effect on sleep quality that far outweighs this benefit. When alcohol is in your body, you get less of the deep sleep you need to wake up feeling refreshed, you're more likely to wake up during the night, and you're more likely to snore and experience other nocturnal breathing problems.

Snoring is annoying but harmless
There's no doubt that snoring is annoying. In some cases it is harmless, but in others it's a sign of obstructive sleep apnea, a sleep disorder characterized by pauses in breathing that prevent air from flowing into or out of a sleeping person's airways. Sleep apnea increases a person's risk of heart disease and causes severe daytime sleepiness. Snorers who temporarily stop breathing during the night or experience severe daytime sleepiness should consult a physician.

There's something wrong if you don't remember your dreams
Everybody dreams, but some people remember them and some don't. Not being able to recall your dreams is perfectly normal and has no negative health effects. Whether or not you remember your dreams is determined by when you wake up in relation to having those dreams. If you wake up during or just after a dream, you're likely to remember it; otherwise, you won't. It's just a matter of timing and has no bearing on sleep quality.

If you've never had much luck remembering your dreams but would like to, a few techniques can help. The trick is to try to recall them the moment you wake up -- letting time pass seems to function as an erase button on your mental VCR, especially if you fall back asleep. Keep a pen and pad on your nightstand and jot down notes about your dreams when you wake up, whether it's at your normal wake-up time or after waking during the night. If you do this every night for a week, there's a good chance you'll start regularly recalling your dreams.

Page 1 of 3 -- Learn more about insomnia and why regular nappers aren't simply being lazy on page 2


Excerpted from The Harvard Medical School Guide to a Good Night's Sleep by Lawrence J. Epstein, M.D., with Steven Mardon. Excerpted by permission of McGraw-Hill. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


I can get by fine on four or five hours of sleep
It's true that a small percentage of people are short sleepers who only need five or six hours of sleep per night. However, sometimes it seems as if two-thirds of the population believe they belong to this select group.

The overwhelming majority of people need seven to nine hours a night, so the chances are relatively small that any particular individual is truly a short sleeper.

If you need eight hours a night but only get six, you can usually carry on for a day or two. After a few days, you'll start to show signs of sleep deprivation, such as daytime drowsiness, irritability, and decreased productivity, and you'll also place yourself at a higher risk for safety problems at work and behind the wheel.

You can learn to get by on less sleep
Unfortunately, there's no way to train the body to reduce its sleep need. Studies on chronic partial sleep deprivation, restricting people to only four or five hours of sleep for several weeks, found that people continue to get sleepier and their performance becomes more impaired the longer the study goes on. There is no plateau or limit to how sleepy and impaired they get. To meet a job deadline or study for a final exam you may be able to function on less sleep, but you will feel more tired, work less efficiently, and get less done.

Insomniacs barely sleep at all
People with insomnia often announce in the morning that they "didn't sleep at all last night." Although it may have seemed this way, failing to get any sleep is extremely unlikely. Even in severe cases, people with insomnia typically get a few hours of sleep per night. We all tend to be poor judges of how long it takes us to fall asleep and how long we've slept. Everyone has had the experience of intending to fall asleep for a few minutes and waking up several hours later, unaware of how much time has passed. This is because we don't experience the passing of time while asleep. There is a small group of people who are convinced they get no sleep at all each night -- until we bring them into the sleep laboratory and show them that although they claimed to lie awake all night, they actually slept for seven hours.

Falling asleep during the day is a sign of laziness
Falling asleep during daytime hours is not a character defect; it's a sign of physiological need. Lazy people may fritter away their time at unproductive or pointless tasks, but they don't necessarily have trouble staying awake in the daytime.

Sleeping during the day is a sign of sleep deprivation. This can be self-induced (that is, from staying up late), or it may result from poor sleep hygiene; insomnia; sleep apnea, narcolepsy, or another sleep disorder; or an underlying illness. It can also be a side effect of a medication.

Listening to self-help recordings while you sleep can help you learn
Although a multitude of tapes and CDs are available on the Internet purporting to help people improve themselves (such as learn a language, lose weight, or quit smoking) while they sleep, I've yet to see any solid research showing they're effective. What sometimes confuses this issue is that there is abundant evidence that a good night's rest can improve test performance compared to a night of sleep deprivation. Sleep does play a role in learning, but first you need to be awake while you're taking in new information.

Page 2 of 3 -- Can you get too much sleep? Find out on page 3

Excerpted from The Harvard Medical School Guide to a Good Night's Sleep by Lawrence J. Epstein, M.D., with Steven Mardon. Excerpted by permission of McGraw-Hill. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


Napping is a bad habit
Napping is a complex issue -- depending on the situation, a nap can be either helpful or harmful. The major factor to consider is what effect a nap will have on your main sleep block. If it's likely to curtail it, then napping is inadvisable, since ideally you want the main sleep period to be as long as possible. If a nap is unlikely to affect the main sleep block, then it's perfectly okay.

"Bad" naps come up most often in the context of people with chronic insomnia. These people often get less than six hours of sleep at night, leading them to feel sleepy during the day. Giving in and taking a nap--especially a long one--only perpetuates the cycle of nighttime insomnia and daytime sleepiness. In such cases, the individual needs to pinpoint the source of the insomnia and address it.

The timing of a nap can also affect its desirability. If you keep traditional hours, it's generally a bad idea to nap in the evening, since this makes it harder to fall asleep at night. Unless your safety is in danger and you need the nap to stay awake for the next few hours, you're usually better off toughing it out until your regular bedtime.

In most other situations, though, naps are beneficial. For example, if you don't have insomnia but experience an occasional night of short sleep (from work stress, noisy neighbours, child care demands, and so on), then a nap is a great way to replace your lost sleep. Many people whose sleep is curtailed by the morning alarm clock routinely squeeze in a short afternoon nap, and this is healthy. Naps are also a lifesaver for shift workers, due to the sleep deprivation that frequently accompanies working at night.

It's possible to get too much sleep
You've probably heard people say that if they sleep too much they feel tired when they wake up. This is a misconception. First, you can't get more sleep than your body needs. The homeostatic drive to sleep wears off as you sleep and stops exerting its pressure. In the morning, the circadian cycle is in its alert phase, not its sleep phase. So if you continue to sleep, it's because you need more sleep.

Second, the grogginess that some people report with longer sleep isn't due to the extended sleep. Most often, people extend their sleep because they've been depriving themselves for several nights. A single night of extended sleep does not make up all of the sleep debt, so when they wake up, they're still sleep deprived and as a result don't feel refreshed.

Finally, if you extend your sleep into the afternoon you may wake up at a time on your circadian clock when it's natural to be sleepy, which may contribute to that groggy feeling.

Don't let fear of feeling bad keep you from getting enough sleep. Listen to your body; it will tell you whether or not you need more sleep. If you're sleepy, you need more sleep.

How I sleep doesn't affect the rest of my health
More and more evidence is accumulating showing that overall health is very much tied to sleep quality and quantity. Specific sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea, can cause heart hypertension and heart disease. Mood and mental health are affected by sleep. Sleep deprivation is linked to the development of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease and can even affect your life span. So give sleep its due.

Page 3 of 3

Excerpted from The Harvard Medical School Guide to a Good Night's Sleep by Lawrence J. Epstein, M.D., with Steven Mardon. Excerpted by permission of McGraw-Hill. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.



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Sleep myths and facts