The concept of sleep seems simple: Turn out the lights, crawl under the covers, close your eyes and drift off. But sleep is a complex biological process — and much of what you believe about your nightly ritual might be untrue.
We talked to experts to dispel four common myths about sleep. You’ll rest easier knowing the facts.
MYTH: You can catch up on sleep.
FACT: Chronic sleep debt cannot be repaid in a single weekend.
If your weekly schedule keeps you from falling into bed before midnight and the alarm goes off at 5 a.m., sleeping in on weekends won’t erase the effects of going into sleep debt in the first place. “Sleeping in later on the weekends to make up for lost sleep can make it difficult to fall asleep at the end of the weekend, which can lead to a deficit starting the week,” says Natalie Dautovich, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University and the environmental scholar for the National Sleep Foundation.
It can take weeks — or longer — to get your body back on a regular schedule, and even a few nights of sleep debt can start the cycle all over again. In the meantime, the effects of sleep debt include brain fog, impaired driving, short-term memory loss and blurred vision.
Your best bet is to establish a regular bedtime/wake time and stick with it.
MYTH: Sleep disorders are not very common.
FACT: Between 50–70 million Americans report having a sleep disorder such as insomnia, snoring, sleep deprivation and sleep apnea, according to the American Sleep Association.
Mort Orman, MD, author of “Sleep Well Again,” estimates that just 5% of those who suffer from sleep disorders talk to doctors about their problems.
“People don’t like to reveal they are having problems sleeping,” Orman says. Sleep disorders “are very common; they can also be very damaging by leading to daytime drowsiness, accidents, poor decision-making, increased sensitivity to stress, chronic fatigue and many other health problems.”
MYTH: Sleeping pills are the best solution for sleep problems.
FACT: Sleeping pills are only a temporary remedy.
Almost nine million Americans take prescription sleep aids, according to a report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics. Orman warns against regular use of sleeping pills, noting, “the chronic daily use of sleeping pills can actually diminish the brain’s ability to naturally fall asleep.”
Sleeping pills can be helpful in the short term but chronic use should be avoided, says Orman.
There are countless natural sleep inducers, including exercise, acupuncture, supplements, meditation and regular sleep/wake times. Before taking prescription or over-the-counter medications, Orman suggests talking to your doctor. “The truth is that sleeping pills are rarely the best solution,” he says.
MYTH: You don’t have to prioritize sleep.
FACT: Sleep is as important as diet and exercise for health and well-being.
Sleep is critical for the healing and repair of the heart and blood vessels. It helps promote growth and development and regulates insulin. Sleep deficiency leads to an increased risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and stroke; a lack of sleep also fires up your appetite and increases the risk of obesity.
“The more sleep-deprived we are, the less accurately we can judge the impact of sleep loss on our functioning,” says Dautovich.