Category: Blog

Myths about sleep

There is so much information out there about sleep but not all of it is true. This is a problem as it leads to unrealistic expectations and myths about sleep, as well as people adopting unhelpful habits that could even damage their long-term health.

You can train yourself to need five hours of sleep or less

This is one of the most damaging sleep myths that put people at risk of long-term health problems. There is now a wealth of studies linking sleeping less than six hours with heart attacks, strokes, dementia, type two diabetes, obesity, mental health problems and reduced life expectancy.

Despite this, I regularly hear people saying they can get by on five to six hours of sleep. It’s also common for people to quote famous people who got by on very little sleep, such as Margaret Thatcher (who had dementia for at least twelve years before dying of a stroke), Donald Trump or William Churchill (who regularly napped in the day), as justification for self-imposed lack of sleep. There are some rare individuals who need less than the average amount of sleep but this is roughly one person in four million.

You might get used to feeling sleep deprived. It doesn’t mean you only need five hours of sleep just because you can get by on this.

Sleep experts recommend aiming for seven to nine hours of sleep a night. As well as the long-term benefits, there is lots of evidence to show that getting sufficient sleep leads to more focus and attention, better memory, improved reaction times and decision-making, better mood, enhanced creativity and problem-solving, and other improvements that will improve work performance and leadership skills. 

You can catch up on sleep at the weekend

If you don’t get enough sleep on weekdays, you can’t put this right with extra sleep at the weekend. You need sufficient sleep every night to repair the damage done to your brain and body when you are awake. Lying in at the weekend might partially clear a sleep “debt” and reverse the short-term effects of sleep deprivation such as drowsiness but it won’t reverse the long-term effects of not getting sufficient sleep every night.

Getting up at 5am is the key to success

Some people naturally wake early in the morning. Other people find it hard to wake early. This is not because they are lazy but because they have a genetic makeup that is different to the early risers. Your genetic tendency to sleep and wake at a certain time is called your chronotype. If you have an evening chronotype and you find it very hard to get to sleep before 10pm at the latest, you are not going to get enough sleep if you get up at 5am. Not only will you be sleep deprived which will affect your daytime performance but you will put your long-term health at risk.

It is possible to “entrain” your circadian rhythm (your internal body clock) to sleep at a different time to your chronotype but to do this successfully it is best to stick to the same bedtime and wake time every day, to give you seven to nine hours of sleep, and not change this at the weekend.

Waking at night is bad for my sleep quality

Most people wake a couple of times every night but they are not consciously aware of this. With age, people often notice they are waking in the night. It is very common to wake at the end of a period of REM sleep which occurs at the end of a sleep cycle. You might also wake in light sleep, in response to a noise or other disturbance. If you wake just a few times a night and for a brief period (less than 20 to 30 minutes in total), this is unlikely to seriously affect your sleep quality. If you are frequently awake for more than 30 minutes a night or wake multiple times and you feel it is affecting your daytime functioning, it’s worth speaking to a doctor.

Adults need less sleep with age

Older adults are still recommended to aim for seven to eight hours of sleep a night because they don’t need less sleep than younger adults. However, it’s harder to achieve this because as we age, the mechanisms in the body that drive our sleep weaken. This results in more fragmented sleep at night and often a tendency to nap in the day.

A warm bedroom is best for sleeping

In order to get to sleep, the core body temperature has to drop and this coincides with a release of melatonin in the brain. If the room temperature is too high, this process may be disrupted and you may struggle to get to sleep, stay asleep or experience poor sleep quality. It’s best to sleep in a cool room of between 16 to 18 degrees Celsius and to regulate your body temperature with layers of bedding.

Exercising at night can cause disturbed sleep

About ten years ago, the advice was to not exercise in the evening or you may have disturbed sleep. However, of all the studies that have been done on this topic, there is very little evidence that exercise in the evening is detrimental to sleep. In fact, many people find that exercising in the evening helps them to sleep.

A small number of people do report that intense, vigorous exercise close to bedtime can cause a delay in getting to sleep. You need to allow enough time for your core body temperature to cool down and to have a wind down of 30-60 minutes before attempting sleep.

Hitting the snooze button helps me to wake up

While this might feel like a good way to ease you out of bed, you get very little benefit from the sleep this provides. Hitting the snooze button every five or ten minutes gives you fragmented sleep which is unlikely to be restorative. Waking up this way is not going to make you feel more refreshed. It’s better to set the alarm for when you actually intend to get out of bed, sleep up until this point without snoozing, then get straight up. It can be helpful to put the alarm out of reach so you have to get out of bed to turn it off and put the lights on straight away.

Christabel Majendie January 2023.

Christabel is a Bristol based sleep therapist and consultant, specialising in helping individuals experiencing a wide range of sleep problems. For more information on her work you can visit her website.

Christabel is not a brand ambassador and does not endorse any product of Sleep Well Drinks Limited.