Mind & Body

Do You Believe These 20 Myths About Sleep?

Some myths are harmless, like the idea that salt will make water boil faster. Others, like those about vaccines or climate change, can be deadly. When it comes to myths about sleep, according to one team of sleep researchers, the misinformation runs the gamut — some don't matter at all, while others may be actively harming the health of those who take them to heart. In a study published last month in Sleep Health, a team of researchers collected 20 sleep myths to determine which were little white lies and which were whoppers.

Put These Myths to Bed

While misinformation about sleep health might not sound as serious as, say, myths about drugs and alcohol, the researchers think sleep myths could be contributing to America's widespread sleep problems. They note that about a third of adults in the United States get less than seven hours of sleep a night, and 1 in 10 Americans have been clinically diagnosed with insomnia. Misinformation surely isn't helping the situation, and the team wanted to figure out just how harmful it was.

To that end, they performed a formal internet search for sleep myths and ran them by a curated panel of sleep experts to find the ones that most of them rated as untrue and having a significant impact on public health. That left them with 20 myths, each of which they had another panel of experts rate on two metrics: how false it was and how significant it was to public health. They used a 5-point scale with 1 meaning "not at all" and 5 meaning "a great deal." Here's what they came up with.

Sleep Duration

1. Being able to fall asleep "anytime, anywhere" is a sign of a healthy sleep system.

Myth score: 4.75 out of 5

Health score: 4 out of 5

Being able to fall asleep anytime, anywhere is often the sign of sleep deprivation.

2. Many adults need only 5 or fewer hours of sleep for general health.

Myth score: 4.63 out of 5

Health score: 4.63 out of 5

While a tiny fraction of people may be able to function on 5 hours of sleep or less, the majority will suffer ill health effects from this little sleep.

3. Your brain and body can learn to function just as well with less sleep.

Myth score: 4.63 out of 5

Health score: 4.14 out of 5

Research shows that while people's self-rated sleepiness evens out after long periods of sleep deprivation, their task performance continues to decrease.

4. Adults sleep more as they get older.

Myth score: 4.13 out of 5

Health score: 2.29 out of 5

Across the board, older people get less sleep than younger people. It's not clear whether they actually need less sleep than younger people, though.

5. If you can get it, more sleep is always better.

Myth score: 3.25 out of 5

Health score: 2.86 out of 5

Too much sleep can be just as harmful as too little. Plus, if you have insomnia, trying to stay in bed past your wake-up time can mess with your already disturbed sleep schedule.

6. One night of sleep deprivation will have lasting negative health consequences.

Myth score: 3.25 out of 5

Health score: 2.29 out of 5

While sleep deprivation is definitely bad for you, research suggests that you can bounce back after a night or two of sound sleep.

Sleep Timing

7. In terms of your health, it does not matter what time of day you sleep.

Myth score: 4.63 out of 5

Health score: 3.57 out of 5

Sleep timing is incredibly important. People who work the night shift and sleep during the day experience significantly worse sleep quality and have higher rates of things like depression, diabetes, and cancer.

Behaviors During Sleep

8. Lying in bed with your eyes closed is almost as good as sleeping.

Myth score: 4.63 out of 5

Health score: 3.86 out of 5

Most of your body's processes, from your brain activity to your metabolism, switch into a completely different gear when you're truly asleep. When it comes to your health, there's no comparison between resting your eyes and really sleeping.

9. If you have difficulty falling asleep, it is best to stay in bed and try to fall back to sleep.

Myth score: 4.63 out of 5

Health score: 3.14 out of 5

If you have trouble falling asleep, you should do what's known as stimulus control therapy: Leave your bed and don't come back until you're tired. Just avoid blue light from electronics screens in the process.

10. Although annoying for bed partners, loud snoring is mostly harmless.

Myth score: 4.25 out of 5

Health score: 4.25 out of 5

Snoring is a symptom of sleep apnea and can lead to cardiovascular issues. As the authors write, "loud or bothersome snoring may be an indication that one needs to consult with a health care provider."

11. A sound sleeper rarely moves at night.

Myth score: 3.88 out of 5

Health score: 1.83 out of 5

Small movements and shifts in position are a normal part of sleep.

Daytime Behaviors

12. Hitting the snooze when you wake up is better than getting up when the alarm first goes off.

Myth score: 3.75 out of 5

Health score: 2.75 out of 5

The "fragmented" sleep you get from hitting the snooze button actually makes you less alert than getting up immediately, even if it means less sleep overall.

13. If you are having difficulties sleeping, taking a nap in the afternoon is a good way to get adequate sleep.

Myth score: 3.13 out of 5

Health score: 3.14 out of 5

Naps aren't unhealthy in general, but if you're having trouble sleeping through the night, a nap during the day can make your problem worse.

Pre-Sleep Behaviors

14. Alcohol before bed will improve your sleep.

Myth score: 4.13 out of 5

Health score: 4 out of 5

Alcohol might make you fall asleep faster, but it lowers your sleep quality, delays the onset of REM sleep, and can make sleep apnea worse.

15. For sleeping, it is better to have a warmer bedroom than a cooler bedroom.

Myth score: 3.88 out of 5

Health score: 2.75 out of 5

Cranking the thermostat is linked to poor sleep. Experts recommend keeping your bedroom between 65 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit (18 and 21 degrees Celsius).

16. Boredom can make you sleepy even if you got adequate sleep before.

Myth score: 3.75 out of 5

Health score: 2.71 out of 5

Take it from the researchers: "... boredom may reveal underlying sleepiness, but boredom alone does not cause sleepiness."

17. Watching television in bed is a good way to relax before sleep.

Myth score: 3.5 out of 5

Health score: 3.14 out of 5

Besides the sleep-disturbing blue light it produces, television keeps your brain active and alert. That's not what you want right before turning in.

18. Exercising within 4 hours of bedtime will disturb your sleep.

Myth score: 3.25 out of 5

Health score: 2.43 out of 5

There's been conflicting research on this one, but in general, exercise and sleep are mutually beneficial.

Brain Functions and Sleep

19. During sleep, the brain is not active.

Myth score: 5 out of 5

Health score: 2 out of 5

You can consider that 5 out of 5 myth score the academic version of a facepalm. Your brain is basically firing on all cylinders while you sleep, which is one reason sleep is so important.

20. Remembering your dreams is a sign of a good night's sleep.

Myth score: 3.63 out of 5

Health score: 2.71 out of 5

Studies that compare dream diaries with sleep duration do find that the longer people sleep, the more dreams they can recall. But people can also recall dreams in another way: when researchers wake them up in the middle of the dream. As a result, this one is a toss-up.

The experts also rated four more statements that didn't make the cut as downright myths, getting an average myth rating of around 3 or lower. Those included "Sleeping in on weekends is a good way to ensure you get adequate sleep," "Waking up in the middle of the night is a sign of poor sleep," "Sleeping with a pet is comforting and improves sleep quality," and "It is better to sleep in, compared to getting up and exercising." It just goes to show that even researchers still have a lot to learn about sleep.

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For more sleep science, check out "Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams" by Matthew Walker, Ph.D. You can even let the audiobook lull you to sleep — it's free with an Audible trial. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Ashley Hamer May 10, 2019

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