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.
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 –
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!
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.
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.
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).
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 –
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!