Sleep is one thing that all humans have in common. Study after study has proven that humans need sleep to survive, to prevent numerous concerning health conditions, and to work and feel at our best – it is, along with the need for water and sustenance, one of the few things that unites all of humanity.
Given that sleep is so crucial, so universal, the idea that there are a huge number of misconceptions regarding sleep seems… a little absurd. Yet despite this, misconceptions about sleep do indeed abound, which can make knowing exactly how to optimize your sleep – and thus optimize your health – incredibly difficult.
To help you manage your sleep health as effectively as possible, below, we have detailed five of the most common sleep-related misconceptions and why they can be so problematic.
MISCONCEPTION: If you’re tired, you’ll sleep
It seems sensible to assume that if you’re tired, you’ll fall asleep – that’s how things are meant to work, after all. This belief is often repeated in a huge amount of advice regarding good sleep, too; for example, it is often recommended that you should exercise more if you’re struggling to sleep, as exercise means you’ll be more tired, and thus more likely to sleep.
Unfortunately – as many people come to discover – being tired does not always equal sleep. Tiredness is a physical issue, but falling asleep is often more of a mental one; you can be bodily tired, but if your mind is still wide awake, then this will inevitably translate to your body – so you find yourself tossing and turning, no matter how tired you are, because your mind simply won’t switch off and let you relax. Strange as it may sound, the simple truth is that tiredness alone does not mean that you will sleep.
There are, however, ways and means of overcoming the body/mind disconnect. The first is to try and clear your mind before trying to sleep; many people find that writing a journal entry, or making a to-do list for the next day, helps in this regard. In addition, a weighted blanket can help if you’re always feeling tired but nevertheless struggle to sleep; the weight of the blanket can help to increase serotonin levels, which in turn can help to calm your mind and reduce anxiety – which subsequently makes it much easier to sleep.
MISCONCEPTION: You have to sleep for eight hours per night
When it comes to the “right” amount of sleep a person should get every night, eight hours is usually recommended – a recommendation that comes with the suggestion that anything less than eight hours could be potentially detrimental to health.
To discuss this misconception in more detail, we need to establish a base point: eight hours of sleep per night is a good amount of sleep to get, so the point itself is valid. The misconception comes in the idea that everyone needs eight hours of sleep per night; a statement that numerous studies have shown simply isn’t true.
The amount a person needs to sleep depends on the individual, and is often dictated as much by their genes as anything else. Some people can function perfectly well on four hours of sleep per night; others do better with between six and seven. In contrast, some people need more than eight hours of sleep per night.
It is therefore important to see eight hours as a general guideline. If you personally feel well on only six hours sleep, or you need more than eight to feel at your best, then that’s completely fine and normal. So much of sleep science is related to understanding variations from the norm, so ultimately, you have to learn what works best for you. There’s no need to force yourself to sleep more – or less – than you naturally prefer just to hit a supposedly-beneficial eight-hour mark; go with your natural rhythms first and foremost.
MISCONCEPTION: Lie-ins are definitely bad (or definitely good) for you
Yes, both thoughts – lie-ins are good, and lie-ins are bad – exist, and both qualify as misconceptions. The matter of how lie-ins can affect health is simply far too complicated to ever fit into a simple good/bad binary.
Let’s start at the beginning. For decades, people have enjoyed weekend lie-ins, which present an opportunity to catch up on sleep they had lost during the week. However, around a decade ago, some researchers began to indicate that lie-ins were actually problematic, as they disrupted natural sleep cycles and made it more difficult to sleep well during the week. As a result, lie-ins garnered a bad reputation.
However, a recent study has concluded that lie-ins are actually beneficial. The study found that those who get five hours – or less – of sleep per night during the week have a higher risk of death than those who enjoy six to seven hours. However, if the “missed” hours are caught up on the weekend, then the mortality risk returns to normal. So, according to the study, lie-ins are beneficial. Great!
Unfortunately, the matter is complicated further by the fact that the original concern regarding lie-ins – that they disturb natural sleep patterns – is also valid. If you disrupt your sleeping pattern on weekends – going to bed and getting up later, for example – then you risk destabilizing your sleeping pattern, which can be harmful to health.
Admittedly, the two points above make it difficult to form a conclusion: it could be argued that lie-ins are good, as they let you catch up on lost sleep. However, lie-ins are also bad, as they disrupt your natural sleep cycle. Both points are evidenced by studies, research, and expert opinion – so how can we definitively decide whether or not lie-ins are worth enjoying?
To put it simply, we can’t. As a result, the only way to truly forge a route past the confusing topic of lie-ins is to simply ignore lie-ins altogether. Instead, focus on avoiding a sleep debt during the week, so there is no need to sleep more on weekends and thus risk disturbing your natural sleep cycle. Furthermore, as we touched on above, advice and research is generalized across the whole population, and does not necessarily take into account the fact that the “right” amount of sleep varies between individuals. As a result, you may find that you personally feel – and are – perfectly fine when sleeping for five hours per night during the week, which means you’re not creating a sleep debt, and thus there would be no benefit to a lie-in anyway.
Lie-ins may be pleasant and indulgent, but if you’re looking to get the most from your sleep, a lie-in is too contradictory a subject to rely on – you’re far better off just focusing on achieving the right amount of sleep for you, and going to bed and waking up at roughly the same time, regardless of what day of the week it is.
MISCONCEPTION: Experiencing insomnia means not being able to get to sleep
For most of us, the term “insomnia” means the inability to fall asleep – for example, going to bed as usual, but then lying staring at the ceiling, feeling wide awake, and being completely unable to drift off to sleep at all.
However, the descriptor above actually applies to sleeplessness, not insomnia. Insomnia can indeed cause sleeplessness, but the condition can also cause issues such as:
- Falling asleep with ease, but struggling to stay asleep – i.e. waking up, and then falling back to sleep, frequently throughout the night
- Falling asleep with ease, but waking up far earlier than intended and then being unable to get back to sleep
- Supposedly sleeping well, but still feeling tired in the morning and frequently needing to nap to get through the day
If you experience any of the above, then you may be experiencing insomnia, and will likely benefit from seeking medical advice in order to find a suitable solution.
MISCONCEPTION: Sleeping through the night is incredibly important
The idea that sleeping through the night is beneficial and something we should all aim for is pervasive in modern society – and the idea takes hold early too, with a baby sleeping through the night being seen as a significant developmental milestone.
However, there is no evidence that sleeping through the night in one, unbroken sleep period is beneficial. In fact, throughout history, sleeping through the night was almost unheard of – people would get up, read a book, fix a drink, talk to their partner or children, and then go back to sleep for a few more hours.
If you find that you naturally wake around in the early hours of the morning, this is not necessarily a bad sign. If you wake up more frequently, or struggle to get back to sleep after waking, then that is a concern – but the occasional period of wakefulness late at night is entirely natural, so there’s no need to be unduly concerned.
Hopefully, with the misconceptions above now busted, you can work towards optimizing your sleep – and thus enjoy greater benefits across every aspect of your life.