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6 Common Myths That May Be Hurting Your Sleep

Test your sleep IQ against these common sleep misconceptions.

Marjan Apostolovic/Shutterstock
Source: Marjan Apostolovic/Shutterstock

Sleep is increasingly getting the attention it deserves as a pillar of health and wellness: Sleep news makes headlines. Sleep care is starting to gain real attention in the workplace. The importance of sleep is increasingly part of our public conversation.

Still, myths about sleep persist, and it's time to clear up some of the most common, because misunderstandings about how sleep works can hinder your ability to get your best, most refreshing, and restorative rest.

1. Everybody needs eight hours of sleep.

You hear it all the time: The standard recommendation for a full, healthy night of sleep is eight hours. It’s a decent general guideline, but I hate general guidelines, because everyone is different. There’s little question that the world would be a healthier, happier place if more people got more hours of nightly sleep on a regular basis. But the truth is, not everyone needs eight hours of sleep.

Sleep needs vary by individual and are strongly influenced by genetics. Two biological systems regulate sleep and go a long way in defining how much sleep each of us needs. The circadian system, a series of 24-hour biological rhythms, is influenced primarily by light and dark. All human circadian clocks run on a roughly 24-hour cycle. But individual biology is unique, and our biological clocks keep slightly different time. Even small variations in circadian timing can influence sleep-wake cycles and may affect how much sleep our bodies need.

The other system is our homeostatic sleep drive. This internal sleep drive grows the longer you’ve been awake, increasing what’s known as “sleep pressure.” Some people have naturally higher sleep drives, while others have lower sleep drives.

Focusing too narrowly on hitting the eight-hour mark can cause stress and frustration if you’re a slightly shorter sleeper. If you need more than eight hours, you may be shortchanging yourself of important rest. Give yourself a consistent, ample window for sleep. Then focus on the quality of your rest.

2. You can get by on fewer than six hours of sleep.

Don’t let myth #1 fool you: Sleep needs vary, but nearly everyone suffers deficits to health, well-being, and performance when they regularly get less than six hours a night. Only a very small fraction of the population can function well and maintain good health on a sleep routine of fewer than six hours a night. True, short sleepers do exist—people who can perform at their best and stay healthy on under six hours of rest—but they are estimated to be no more than 5 percent of the population.

Research suggests that a rare gene mutation may be one explanation for why this small group of people needs less sleep. We tend to overestimate our ability to perform when sleep-deprived, according to research. It’s very possible to believe you are functioning well and are sufficiently rested when you’re not. If you immediately assume you are among the rare “short sleepers,” think again: The odds are that you’re like the rest of the 97 percent of the population and that you need, at minimum, six hours a night of high-quality rest.

3. Sleep needs diminish with age.

It’s a common perception that we need less sleep with age. That’s not the case. Sleep needs change throughout childhood and adolescence—young, growing people need more sleep than adults—before settling into a steady need for sleep in adulthood. That individual need doesn’t change significantly as we grow older. You may get less sleep in middle age or older adulthood, but that doesn’t mean you need less, or that you should scale back on the opportunity to get the same seven to eight hours a night, regularly.

What does change as we age are sleep issues. As people get older, sleep problems tend to become more frequent. Sleep disorders, including insomnia and sleep apnea, become more common. Nearly 50 percent of adults over 60 experience insomnia, according to research. Older adults often have:

  • Trouble falling asleep.
  • Difficulty staying asleep.
  • A tendency to wake up early.
  • Unrefreshing sleep.

What’s behind age-related sleep difficulties? Circadian rhythms gradually weaken as we age, which contributes to less robust sleep-wake cycles and sleep patterns that are less consolidated. Older adults may sleep less during the night and need to nap during the day to get sufficient rest. Other health conditions—and medications used to treat them—may also interfere with sleep as we grow older.

4. You can train yourself to perform at your best on too little sleep.

I see this myth in action with a number of patients, who want to eke the most out of every moment of the day—except when it comes to sleep. The need for sleep is rooted in individual biology and genetic makeup. Individual genetics also contribute significantly to morning and evening preferences, and the affinity we have for engaging in certain activities at certain times of the day. The time of day you hit your concentration stride at work, the moments in the day when you tend to daydream, and the times you’re most ready for exercise are all biologically-driven preferences.

Sleep needs and preferences can be influenced by social forces, lifestyle, and behavioral choices—but to a significant degree, they are fixed in each of us. If you’re a person who needs seven and a half hours of sleep to function at your best, no amount of time management, discipline, or hard work is going to give you the same performance on five hours of rest.

Sleep is critical to health and emotional balance, and also to cognitive performance. On too little sleep, your ability to think well, concentrate, strategize, make judgment calls and decisions, be creative, and cope with stress and pressure are all compromised. To maximize your daily performance, instead of pushing yourself to function on short sleep, make room in your routine to get the full amount of sleep you really need.

5. You can fully make up for lost sleep on the weekends.

Many people build a sleep debt during the week—a growing deficit between the sleep you need and the amount you actually get. Think about it: If you’re sleeping five-and-a-half hours a night during the workweek, and you really need seven, then by Friday you’re short an entire night of sleep.

It’s a common strategy to use the weekend to make up for this lost sleep. Weekend recovery sleep does help, but it likely won’t fully erase the negative effects of losing sleep during the week. Research shows that after sleep deprivation, weekend make-up sleep doesn’t completely restore attention, focus, and other measurements of cognitive performance. What’s more, getting too much extra sleep on the weekend results in inconsistent bedtimes and wake times. An irregular sleep schedule can throw off your sleep-wake cycle, setting you up for Sunday-night insomnia and making you more likely to sleep poorly during the week.

If you’re trying to pay down a sleep debt, some recovery sleep on weekends can help. Use weekend catch-up sleep in moderation, sticking to within 60 minutes of your regular bedtime and wake time. And focus on getting more of the sleep you need during the week.

6. Turkey and warm milk make you sleepy.

These longtime sleep myths are pretty persistent, but no, turkey won’t make you sleepy, and neither will a glass of warm milk. The amino acid tryptophan is cited as the reason for turkey and warm milk’s alleged sleep-inducing powers. Tryptophan does play a role in sleep: It helps the brain produce more serotonin and melatonin, two brain chemicals that are key to healthy, sound sleep. And tryptophan-rich foods have an important place in a sleep-supporting diet. Turkey is only one type of meat that’s rich in tryptophan; so are red meat, other poultry, and fish. And milk certainly isn’t the only dairy product high in tryptophan; so are cheese and yogurt, in addition to nuts and seeds, dark greens, and eggs.

The tryptophan you ingest in a hefty serving of Thanksgiving turkey or a steaming cup of hot milk doesn’t act as a sedative, because you are not consuming enough. According to some simple calculations, there is about 0.24 grams of tryptophan in 100 grams of turkey. If a dose were as low as one gram, you would need about 0.7 pounds. But the data suggests that you really need more like seven grams, so you would have to eat roughly five pounds of turkey. More likely, you feel sleepy after Thanksgiving dinner because you’ve eaten a big meal, full of lots of carbohydrates. And a warm mug of milk might soothe and relax you—just as a cup of tea might. But neither of these foods—in the amounts you’d consume in even the most generous serving—will directly send you to dreamland.

Steer clear of these sleep myths, and you’ll put yourself on the path to better sleep.

Sweet Dreams,
Michael J. Breus, Ph.D., DABSM

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