24 surprising sleep myths and facts

By the time you’re done reading this article, you’ll be surprised at the number of misconceptions you held about sleep


Sleep is perhaps the most underrated aspect of our health and our life. Most people think that the time we spend in bed is the time we waste. But nothing could be farther from truth. Let us look at myths associated with sleep and their facts.

Sleep myth 1: During sleep, your brain rests completely

Most people think of sleep as a passive, dormant part of their daily lives. Wakefulness contains only a single brain wave. To be physically, psychologically, and emotionally at your best, you have to experience five different types of brain waves every night during sleep. That’s how much work your brain does while you are asleep. The sleeping brain regulates endocrine, immune, and hormonal functions essential for healthy living. It is also a critical period for memory consolidation.

Sleep myth 2: Sleeping longer makes you gain weight

The opposite is true. Lack of sleep can stall your weight loss efforts. By adding one extra hour of sleep every night, you can lose up to half kg per week. Sleep deprivation causes leptin levels to decrease and ghrelin levels to increase, leaving you craving for sugars and junk food. That’s how, contrary to popular belief, regular and sound sleep can actually help you lose weight.

Sleep myth 3: You can condition yourself to need less sleep

You may want to believe that but you cannot convince your body of it. You can condition yourself to wake up after just a few hours of sleep, but it does not change your need for adequate sleep. Your sleep requirement is hard-wired! Determine the amount of sleep that will permit you to be energetic and alert all day long. You must condition yourself so that the hours in bed correspond to the sleeping phase of your circadian rhythm and the hours out of bed correspond to the waking phase. Therefore, establish a regular sleep/wake schedule, Monday through Monday, including the weekends.

Sleep myth 4: A boring meeting, warm room, or low dose of alcohol helps you fall asleep

Not true, unless you are sleep deprived. These factors simply unmask the sleepiness that is already in your body. If you are not sleep deprived, you may be restless and fidgety, but not sleepy.

Sleep myth 5: Snoring is not harmful

If left untreated, heavy snoring can lead to a higher risk of high blood pressure [heart attacks and strokes]. Heavy snoring with repetitive pauses in your breathing, followed by a gasping for air, is indicative of sleep apnoea. This life-threatening breathing disorder is commonly treated non-surgically by wearing a mask at night that delivers continuous, positive airway pressure through the nose to keep the airway open. Without the mask, these individuals may stop breathing up to 600 times a night and must wake up for a microsecond each time to resume normal breathing.

Sleep myth 6: Not everyone dreams at night

All of us dream every night, although many do not remember having done so. Most dreams occur during rapid eye movement [REM] sleep that occurs every 90 minutes. If you sleep for eight hours, approximately two hours will be spent dreaming.

Sleep myth 7: The older you get; the lesser sleep you need

As you age, the ability to maintain sleep becomes more difficult. This is due to hardening of the arteries or the result of taking medications for rheumatoid arthritis, hypertension, or type II diabetes that may interfere with sleep. We need almost as much sleep in our senior years as we needed when we were of middle age or younger.

Sleep myth 8: Most people know how sleepy they are

The majority of sleepers overestimate the amount they actually have slept by about 47 minutes.

Sleep myth 9: Raising the volume of your radio, air conditioning or drinking coffee will help you stay awake while driving

None of these “remedies” will help prevent drowsiness or falling asleep at the wheel for a person who is sleep deprived. Drowsiness is a red alert—get off the road and take a 20-minute power nap in a safe area. At best you will have another 30 minutes of driving.

Sleep myth 10: Sleep disorders are mainly due to worry

There are 89 known sleep disorders whose causes range from neurological issues to biochemical imbalance and physiological problems. Examples are sleep apnoea, narcolepsy, restless leg syndrome, nocturnal myoclonus, enuresis, sleepwalking, sleep talking, and REM sleep behaviour.

Sleep myth 11: Most sleep disorders go away without treatment

Sleep disturbances that last for more than three weeks typically require professional treatment, ranging from learning good sleep hygiene practices to medicines and psychotherapy.

Sleep myth 12: Men need more sleep than women

On the contrary, women tend to need more sleep than men, especially during premenstrual, pregnancy, and premenopausal stages. Women sleep lighter than men and are more susceptible to bouts of insomnia.

Sleep myth 13: By playing audiotapes during the night, you can learn while you sleep

If you are asleep you cannot acquire new knowledge. However, sleep enables you to process and retain information learned during wakefulness and recall it better the next day.

Sleep myth 14: If you have insomnia at night, you should make up by sleeping in the day

If you wish to cure your nocturnal insomnia you should never nap during the day.

Sleep myth 15: The best time to exercise is early in the morning when you are most alert

Exercise is good for promoting the quantity and quality of sleep whenever done during the day. However, early morning exercise is only suitable for people who have met their nocturnal sleep requirement. Furthermore, it’s best to avoid heavy aerobic exercise within an hour of bedtime.

Sleep myth 16: Sex at night will arouse you and keep you up, delaying sleep onset

Satisfactory sex might help you to go to sleep fairly quickly. However, concerns about performance and unsatisfactory sex can delay sleep onset and make sleep more fitful.

Sleep myth 17: A sound sleeper rarely moves during the night

Most people move 40 – 60 times during the night although they might be unaware of having done so.

Sleep myth 18: A glass of wine before bed helps you fall asleep

A nightcap might put you to sleep but any alcohol within three hours of bedtime is likely to disrupt ensuing REM sleep. Alcohol in large amounts is a stimulant, not a sedative.

Sleep myth 19: Sleeping in late on the weekends is a good way to catch up on lost sleep

You have one biological clock—not one for the workweek and one for the weekends. You must go to bed and get up at the same time Monday through Monday. To do otherwise would have the same effect of dieting or exercising only on the weekends—it doesn’t work.

Sleep myth 20: It is not normal to awaken several times a night

It is rare that people can sleep uninterrupted for long periods of time. However, if you wake up during the night and cannot get back to sleep within 20 minutes, this is indicative of insomnia. Often such awakenings will last for an entire 90-minute wake period before you will be able to resume sleep.

Sleep myth 21: Cozying up under heavy blankets will make you go to sleep faster

An ideal sleeping room temperature is between 65 – 67 degrees Fahrenheit. Being too warm may lead to awakenings and emotionally laden dreams.

Sleep myth 22: You are a good sleeper if you can fall asleep within five minutes

The well-rested sleeper will take about 20 minutes to fall asleep. Going to sleep as soon as your head hits the pillow is a sure sign of sleep deprivation.

Sleep myth 23: Sleeping pills are absolutely safe if taken in correct dose

Many sleeping medications can be harmful, causing memory loss, daytime grogginess, depression, cancer and even death. Cognitive behaviour therapy for solving sleep problems is a much better long-term treatment for insomnia.

Sleep myth 24: Sleep cannot help you improve your athletic skills

In the last quartile in an 8-hour night, the brain secretes calcium into your motor cortex. This permits well-rehearsed good athletic moves to be consolidated into motor muscle memory, improving athleticism, reaction time, and situational awareness.

This was first published in the March 2016 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

Magnifying lens over an exclamation markSpot an error in this article? A typo maybe? Or an incorrect source? Let us know!

James Maas
Dr. James B. Maas is a sleep educator/researcher who helped develop the Dr. Maas Sleep for Success line of pillows and comforters for United Feather and Down. He served for 48 years as professor, chair of Psychology and Weiss Presidential Fellow at Cornell University. He lectured about sleep to more than 65,000 undergraduates, several of whom are now sleep doctors. He is the author of New York Times Business Best Seller Power Sleep
Danielle J Boehm
Danielle J Boehm holds an Associate's degree in Nursing and is a COO and sleep educator at Sleep for Success.


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