Busting the Sleep Myths

As a society, we are 24/7 and driven by productivity. With the night time being the new frontier, our culture just doesn’t want to go to sleep.

According to the documentary “Sleepless in America,” a collaboration by National Geographic, National Institute of Health and The Public Good Projects, 40% of American adults are sleep-deprived, and the average American sleeps less than 7 hours per night.

As a sleep specialist, I was interviewed by our city’s newspaper* last week, regarding sleep issues and pervading myths about them. Here are what we discussed.

Myth #1: Chronic sleep deprivation won’t dramatically harm health.

Fact: Not getting your ZZZZZs can cause obesity, Alzheimer’s disease, mental illness and depression, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and possibly even cancer, studies show.

When we don’t get enough sleep, our body releases a hormone that makes us feel hungry or not satisfied, so we’re likely to eat more. When this happens day after day it can lead to obesity.

Lack of sleep can cause insulin-resistance leading to diabetes. It can also impairs memory and many of the mental illness known includes sleep problems.

Myth #2: A nap disrupts sleep at night.

Fact: Short naps lasting 15 to 30 minutes are good for you.

Our normal circadian rhythm causes a dip (in energy) every afternoon sometime between noon and 3:00. A short nap, research shows, can improve functionality.

However, naps lasting more than 30 minutes produce a deeper level of sleep. Those are more difficult to awaken from, can leave you feeling groggy, and definitely make it harder to get to sleep at night.

nap at work

Myth #3: You have more important things to do than sleep.

Fact: In the 19th century people slept nine or 10 hours a night. Now we average just six or seven hours a night. Of course they don’t have television and internet in those days. Now we have developed this thinking that sleeping is a waste of time when that’s not true.

Adequate sleep benefits your mental sharpness and mood. It provides the energy that allows you to accomplish more during the day.

Myth #4: Some people do fine with less than 7 hours of sleep.

Fact: Most sleep experts agree that nearly everyone needs between seven and nine hours of sleep per night.

Some people may function well with fewer than 7 hours of sleep, but that’s not the norm. That said, studies indicate nearly 30 percent of Americans sleep less than six hours. That can increase risk of early death up to 12 percent.

If you fall asleep within five minutes after your head hits the pillow every single time, that may be a sign that you are sleep deprived. So unless you are a Giraffe, which only sleeps an average of 2 hours a day, you better get more hours of sleep.

Myth #5: You can catch up on sleep on weekends.

Fact: When you sleep deprive yourself, your sleep debt increases each day. You need to pay it back within the next day or so, not delay to the weekend.

The problem with “banking sleep” until the weekend is that sleeping in usually causes you to be awake later that night. Come Monday morning, you’re apt to start the week already sleep deprived, and the vicious cycle continues.

Myth #6: Driving when tired is okay as long as you drink plenty of caffeine.

Fact: Fatigue is the No. 1 cause of high-severity car crashes.

Although caffeine can help fight fatigue, it takes at least 30 minutes before it takes effect. If you’re awake for 17 or 18 hours straight, your reflexes are so slow it’s as if your blood alcohol level were .05 percent. You’re as good as drunk.

sleep pals

Myth #7: Teens don’t need to sleep in like they do.

Fact: Staying up late and then wanting to sleep in is really not teenagers’ fault entirely. Their physical-mental-behavioral “clocks” ― called circadian rhythms ― are to blame.

Teens’ circadian rhythms are delayed a bit, which is known as Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome. They don’t usually feel sleepy until midnight or later, but then they don’t want to get up in the morning. That’s not a problem until they need to follow society’s schedule for school or work.

According to “Sleepless in America,” teens who sleep more hours do better in school and has less rate of developing depression.

To help teens achieve wakefulness in the morning (which helps them fall asleep earlier at night), more exposure to sunlight or light therapy can be recommended. This helps reset their circadian rhythm to be more alert earlier in the day.

Myth #8: Shift workers adjust to their work schedules.

Fact: No one really gets used to shift work. Humans are diurnal creatures, meaning they are wired to be active in the daytime. Except Batman maybe.

But in our round-the-clock society, someone has to work the graveyard shift. For those who do, these tactics will help improve the quality and duration of sleep:

  • When going home from work in the morning, try to avoid light, which stimulates wakefulness. Put dark sunglasses on.
  • When sleeping during the day, make sure the bedroom is cool and dark. Turn off your phone. Minimize all the things that can disrupt sleep.
  • When working at night, make sure you’re exposed to light and that your work area is well lit.
  • If you’re sleepy when working, using your break for a quick nap can really help.

Myth #9: You just have to live with your current sleep habits.

Fact: Many people have had poor-quality sleep for so long they believe nothing can ever change it. Not true.

Poor sleep habits can be very hard to break, but they can be broken. It starts with educating ourselves on how important good sleep is, and how it will benefit us in the long run.

So there you go folks, unless you are a Christmas elf, you should not ditch sleep tonight.

sleeping hippo

(*photos taken from the web)

(**post note: above interview was published in The Des Moines Register on January 11, 2015)

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