4 Major Sleep Myths and How They Could Be Affecting Your Rest
We’ve all heard the anecdotal evidence, the half-truths, and the old wives’ tales about sleep health, ranging from homegrown “cures” for insomnia to what a nap can (or can’t) do for our health. With all the conflicting information out there, it’s hard to know which theories hold a grain of legitimacy. That’s why we embarked on a mission to expose the truths (and fabrications) behind 4 of the most widely-proliferated sleep myths.
Read on to learn the truth behind 4 of the most popular and widespread sleep myths.
1. Myth: Naps don’t strongly impact mental or physical performance.
A study in Current Opinion in Pulmonary Medicine concluded that a nap of less than 30 minutes during the day was helpful in promoting mental performance, learning, and overall wakefulness. The study also noted that a body trained to wake up after a brief nap will reap the most benefits from the practice. However, WebMD notes that a nap exceeding 2 hours could disrupt your typical sleep patterns and result in a net negative on mental performance.
Still, you’ll want to be cautious with how you go about your napping. One key factor in all this is timing, Dr. Amanda Peltier, assistant professor of neurology at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, tells Everyday Health. For example, when an individual takes a nap too close to bedtime, it can seriously interfere with that individual’s ability to fall sleep at their usual bedtime.
2. Myth: A glass of warm milk will help you fall asleep.
Contrary to popular belief, a glass of warm milk can actually hamper the sleep agent tryptophan’s ability to reach your brain. Research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology indicates that consuming protein-rich foods or drinks will introduce amino acids to your system, which will then compete with — and prevail over — tryptophan in crossing the blood-brain barrier.
Interestingly, research in the same area showed that foods rich in carbohydrates will facilitate tryptophan’s delivery to the brain, reports the New York Times (meaning that your Thanksgiving desserts may better induce sleep than the famously tryptophan-packed turkey).
Don’t put that glass of milk down yet, though: If you have been relying on this bedtime routine to help you sleep, it likely plays an important psychological role in your sleep success. If you truly believe that milk helps you calm down at night, chances are that sense of security alone will have you off to dreamland in no time.
3. Myth: Your brain rests during sleep.
Sleep is not the dormant or passive activity we once thought it was, notes the National Institute of Health — it is, in fact, quite active. Neurons in our brains are hard at work as we drift through the five phases of sleep, rebuilding energy stores and breaking down chemicals such as the drowsiness-causing adenosine. “Switching off” the physical signals that indicate wakefulness is what neurons to enhance their productivity throughout this time.
Recent studies are showing that perhaps our brains are even more active than we imagined as we sleep. The BBC reports on a study recently published in Current Biology in which subjects’ brains were monitored by an electroencephalogram (EEG) before and after they fell asleep. Prior to falling asleep, subjects were to classify spoken words as animals or objects by pressing a button. After falling asleep, brain activity indicated that subjects were continuing to respond accurately to similar prompts (although more slowly).
4. Myth: Everyone needs 8 hours of sleep a night.
Sleep requirements vary hugely from individual to individual, based on no small number of physiological and psychological factors, writes the National Sleep Foundation. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates that one major component in determining needed sleep is age. Sleep requirements vary as we age, and the CDC points out that no “magic number” of requisite hours exists for every person.
Sleep requirements can also be genetic. A 2009 study published in Science discovered a unique genetic mutation in a mother and daughter subject, both of whom appeared to thrive — with no indication of decreased mental or physical performance — on an average of just 6.25 hours of sleep per night.
Further research on the topic came with a more recent study of 100 sets of twins, one of whom carried the mutation. The twin carrying the genetic mutation in question could sleep for at least an hour shorter than his or her sibling without suffering any mental or physical setbacks. Moreover, the study showed that the twin carrying the mutation had 40% fewer lapses of performance, on average, during a 38-hour period without sleep, also requiring less recovery sleep after this period of deprivation, reports CBS News.