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5 Common Sleep Myths Debunked by Science

HELEN WAKEFIELD

Did you believe cheese caused nightmares or that we swallow spiders when we sleep?

 

Thankfully, neither are true!

 

False belief about sleep like these ones can persist despite contradicting scientific evidence, potentially impairing population health as they shape poor sleep habits.

 

A lot of people within the sleep industry are working to correct these common misconceptions to help prevent potential harm to the public and help people sleep better.

 

So, what are some of the most popular sleep myths? In this blog we’ll look at some of the most well-known myths, why they exist, the damage they cause and what we can do to stop them.

 

MYTH 1 – We swallow spiders in our sleep

 

FACT 1 – The chances of swallowing spiders in our sleep are slim to none

 

The most terrifying sleep myth of them all… in our opinion. No matter how old you are, chances are that someone has told you this horrifying tale. The tale that, for some reason unbeknownst to logic, a daring spider approaches whilst we sleep, on a suicide mission of epic proportions, diving into our open mouth… never to be seen again.

 

Not a single study has been done to quantify the number of spider’s people swallow while sleeping. And there’s a good reason why – the chances of this happening are almost zero. The only reason researchers don’t say the chances are zero is that little is impossible.

 

Here’s what this clever little spider would need to do in order to be swallowed by a human – 

 

  1. Have the audacity to voluntarily approach the mouth of a large predator which oftentimes can cause it harm
  2. Wait patiently in the hope of finding a human that is sleeping with their mouth wide open, for a long enough amount of time for them to successfully enter said mouth
  3. Abseil from the ceiling above using its clever silky web to drop down and gain unfelt entry into the mouth
  4. Hit the target (the mouth) dead centre to avoid tickling the lips, which we would feel
  5. A strategic landing would then have to take place – travelling through the mouth and landing at the back of the throat undetected
  6. At the very moment the strategic landing takes place, the spider would then require the human to swallow for it to complete its mission successfully

 

Despite how obvious the unlikelihood of this happening now seems, we definitely believed this sleep myth until now! So, where did it come from?

Lisa Holst, a columnist in the 90’s, wanted to test her theory that people are susceptible to accepting whatever they read online to be true. So, she posted a fabricated article which included the “fact” that the average person swallows 8 spiders per year. The lesson – don’t believe everything you read online!

 

 

MYTH 2 – A person can function well on less than 5 hours of sleep

 

FACT 2 – A person needs the recommended 8 hours of sleep for many health reasons

 

A lot of us see a full night’s sleep as an option or a luxury, when it should be standard practice. That’s why researchers say this myth is the most likely to damage a person’s health in the long-term.

 

Many popular figures have promoted their “need” for less sleep as a badge of honour – Margaret Thatcher and Nikola Tesla stated they only needed 5 hours and 1.5 – 2 hours of sleep respectively. Whether Thatcher’s death from a stroke and Tesla’s mental breakdown at the age of 25 were caused by sleep deprivation or not, we can’t say. What we can say is a lack of sleep is linked to poor cardiovascular health and weaker mental health, so it certainly could have been a contributing factor if not the main reason.

 

A 2019 study found sleeping just 16 minutes less at night increases stress levels, reduces the ability to retain information, increases the ability to get distracted and reduces the ability to make good judgements.

 

So why is it that we deprive ourselves of the quality sleep we need when studies have found doing so can make us fatter, have rubbish memories, increase our risk of cancer / heart attacks / diabetes / Alzheimer’s / [insert any illness], increase the possibility of having a car accident or reduce our fertility?

 

Perhaps increased productivity is to blame – the ‘above and beyond’ society we live in where working longer hours and progressing quickly in our careers is seen as admirable, even if we sacrifice both our downtime and our sleep in the process.  

 

Another reason could be the popularity of the afternoon nap – regular naps to help recharge the body are not enough to make up for an inadequate night’s sleep. Researchers say it’s not a solution and instead it’s better to have a regular sleep schedule.

 

Maybe it’s worth being conscious of that 16-minute window the next time we’re tempted to neglect our sleep and remember the potential impact it’s having on our bodies.

 

MYTH 3 – Eating cheese causes nightmares

 

FACT 3 – There is little evidence that any food helps or interferes with sleep

 

According to Gerhman, assistant professor of psychiatry, not enough evidence exists to show that any food positively or negatively affects our sleep – what is important is to not go to bed too hungry or too full which can disrupt sleep.

 

If there’s no solid evidence to suggest that cheese or any other food causes nightmares, where does this myth come from?

 

It’s likely that one person found a pattern between munching this late-night snack and recurring bad dreams. The idea was then passed on, accepted by some, passed on again, and before you know it we swallow 8 spiders in our sleep!!! Oh… wait.

 

Here’s what scientists have found – cheese contains two amino acids called tryptophan and tyrosine. The body uses both to produce melatonin – a sleep inducing hormone. High levels of melatonin can help us to drift off, however the quantities needed to have an impact are too high for these cheesy snacks to help us fall asleep. Also, no solid proof in any study has found that eating cheese at night causes nightmares either.

 

If you’ve found a pattern between cheesy bedtime snacks and nightmares, it could be that eating before bed disrupts your sleep as Gerhman suggested. If that food happens to be cheese, therein lies the link.

 

MYTH 4 – Alcohol helps people sleep better

 

FACT 4 – Alcohol disrupts sleep quality by up to 39%

 

Recent research has found that moderate drinking diminishes sleep quality by 24%, and heavier drinking reduces sleep quality by 39%. The research found that even as little as one drink impaired sleep quality.

 

So why do so many people think booze helps us sleep better?

 

Alcohol initially can have sedative effects, making us tired and cutting down the time it takes to first nod off. Dr Robbins, a Finnish researcher conducting the study, agrees with this but also stated “…it dramatically reduces the quality of your rest that night.” It leads to poor quality, fragmented sleep, robs us of our most satisfying sleep stage where dreams occur, and wakes us up during the night.

 

Alcohol disrupts our sleep because as the body metabolizes the alcohol, chemicals are produced which can make us wake up during the night. This can be quite disruptive particularly in the second half of the night leading to restless, shallow, and disrupted sleep. One study also said that alcohol reduces the restorative quality of sleep – a low alcohol intake decreased the physiological recovery that sleep normally provides by 9.3%.

 

This could be because booze particularly disrupts our REM (rapid eye movement) stage of sleep and promotes complete loss of slow-wave (deep) sleep. Not only does this mean we’re less refreshed in the morning, but it results in less dreams, poorer memories and a reduced capacity to learn.

 

Alcohol is also a diuretic, which disrupts our sleep during the night when we’re woken up by our full bladder.

 

We all enjoy a good tipple, which is why scientists recommend moderation and avoidance within a certain timeframe before bed. What this timeframe should be seems to differ depending on the source – we’ve read anything between 1.5 hours (Dr. Robbins) and 4 hours (Dr. Gerhman).

 

MYTH 5 – Older people need less sleep

 

FACT 5 – Older people don’t sleep as well

 

It is a common misconception that we don’t need as much sleep as we get older, but why?

 

Some researchers thought that this was the case. However, it’s now been found that we don’t need less sleep as we get older – in fact research demonstrates that our sleep needs remain constant throughout adulthood.

 

The problem is we just don’t sleep as well – sleeping patterns change as we age which results in a declining quality of sleep. Many older adults, though certainly not all, report being less satisfied with sleep and more tired during the day.

 

Here are some of the reason’s older adults don’t sleep as well –

  1. Frequent urination needed – As we get older, our bodies produce less of the anti-diuretic hormone that enables us to retain fluid.
  2. More daytime napping – This is due to other factors in this list having an impact on our sleep quality, making older adults feel drowsy during the day.
  3. Increase in sleep disorders – Sleep illnesses such as insomnia and sleep apnea are more prevalent as we age. Sleep latency, an increase in the time it takes to fall asleep, is more common due to concerns about aging and other factors in this list according to Jack Gardner, a neurologist certified in sleep medicine. Untreated sleep apnea causes breathing to repeatedly pause whilst sleeping, waking a person up to resume breathing.
  4. Increased illness and medication intake – A lot of sleep disturbance among the elderly can be attributed to physical and psychiatric illnesses and the medications used to treat them. Pain from arthritis is common, as is restless legs syndrome which causes an irresistible urge to move the limbs.
  5. Natural sleep cycle changes – Circadian rhythms coordinate the timing of our bodily functions, including sleep. As we age this rhythm changes (the reason why is not yet known), causing older people to become sleepier in the early evening and wake earlier in the morning compared to younger adults. The adjustment to the daily routine, or lack of, can disrupt sleep.
  6. Increased snoring – Snoring often becomes worse with age because of its association with sleep disorders such as sleep apnea, high blood pressure and other health problems, the likelihood of which increases with age. Have you ever woken yourself up with your own snoring?

Whilst we can’t help some of the causes to sleep disruption as we age, we can do something about the rest (no pun intended…). Try adjusting your daily routine as your sleeping patterns change – and try to limit those cat naps.

 

And finally, the obvious one – keep your body as healthy as you can! By keeping your physical and mental health in top condition, your quality of sleep will be positively impacted, and vice versa. Regular exercise, a nutrient rich diet and meditation can all feed the body with the goodness it needs to sleep better. 

 

Why not pass on what you’ve learnt and help someone else to sleep better? The more we debunk sleep myths, the better we can stop them negatively impacting health!

 

If you struggle to sleep or just want to sleep better, we’ve got plenty of advice including 4 quick tips to improve sleep quality

 

and 3 Pillow Mists Scientifically Proven To Help You Sleep Better.

 

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