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6 Myths that May Be Interrupting Your Sleep

Understanding common sleep misconceptions.

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

Still, myths about sleep persist, and these misunderstandings are more than just “oops” moments. They can hinder your ability to get your best, most refreshing, and most restorative sleep.

These are the sleep myths that my patients share with me most often:

1. Everybody needs 8 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 toward 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 affect 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 drives.

Focusing too narrowly on hitting the eight-hour mark can cause stress and frustration if you’re a slightly shorter sleeper. And 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 of sleep a night. Only a very small fraction of the population can function well and maintain good health on a 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 five 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. The rest of us 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 well-rested, when you’re not. If you assume you are among the “short sleepers,” think again: The odds are you’re like 95 percent or more of the population, who need, at minimum, six hours of high-quality rest a night.

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 7-to-8 hours a night.

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

  • Trouble falling asleep.
  • Difficulty staying asleep.
  • Waking 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 the 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 my patients, who want to eek 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 make-up. 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, the times you’re most ready for exercise—these 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 7.5 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 to cognitive performance. With 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 performance, instead of pushing yourself to function on short sleep, make room in your routine for 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 5.5 hours a night during the week, and you really need 7, 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 keep your 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 these foods' 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. But turkey is only one type of meat that’s rich in tryptophan; so is 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 are about 0.24 grams of tryptophan per 100 grams of turkey. If a dose were as low as one gram, you would need to eat about 0.7 pounds. But the data suggests that you really need more like seven grams, so you would be looking at having to eat roughly five pounds of turkey!

More likely, you feel sleepy after a 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 do. But neither food—in the amounts you’d consume in even the most generous serving—will directly put you into dreamland.

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