There are many myths related to sleep. Here are some common ones.
1. The media screams about the must-have-8-hour-sleep every night. Is this really a must? Not necessarily. Sleep requirements vary by age and by personality. Also, it’s not just about quantity but quality of sleep. Sometimes 6-hours of sleep is more refreshing and nurturing than 8-hours of sleep. Substitutes, like alcohol, worsen the quality of sleep (even small amounts). Some people only sleep 4-5 hours per night and are completely fine (Professor Jim Horne calls the first sleep cycle as core sleep. Optional sleep is the next 4-5 hour sleep cycle). Margaret Thatcher famously said: ‘sleep is for wimps’ and only slept a few hours each night. Some people prefer to sleep a bit less at night and to have a nap after lunch. Most people, even the very best sleepers, sleep badly occasionally. Furthermore, sleep is only one of many ways to renew our energy levels.
2. Common perception seems to be that we should get all sleep in one block at night – without awakenings. I wake up 1-2 times per night. Do I have a problem? The current sleep norm really took root following the invention of the electric light bulb by Thomas Edison in 1879. In modern industrialised societies we are exposed to an artificial day that is extended by electric lightning and typically lasts for at least 16 hours, regardless of the season. We now pack all of our sleep into a single block of time during the remaining seven or eight hours of darkness. Researchers agree that this pattern of sleeping is unusual and new in human history: until cheap light sleep was split into two or more separate episodes in each 24-hour period. In short, we can claim that it’s in our genes to wake up during the night. Most people actually wake between 10-15 times per night but without any recollection of this. More about segmented sleep and sleep evolution in here.
Some sleep experts might tell us to try to sleep during the night in one block, but as said above this is not necessarily natural for all of us. Some of us wake up a few times during the night and this is very normal. It’s OK to read to get to sleep. But the key is to aim to drift back to sleep fast (dim light, focus on slow breathing, boring book). Getting angry and frustrated at night (because of not sleeping and worrying of not sleeping) is far more disruptive and unhelpful than reading a few pages. Tossing around more than 20 minutes is not helpful either. After 20 minutes of trying do something, calm your mind and breathing and try again. Keep on doing this until you fall asleep.
3. Napping is bad. Many say that napping is an art! But, yes, it’s true, some sleep therapists/experts are against napping. This said, most of them (and recent studies) do confirm that short naps do improve mood, enhance memory and alleviate fatigue. It can also rebuild that ‘feel-good’ connection with sleep which is an absolutely must in order to sleep well during the night. However, it’s vital not to over-nap as this can really make you feel tired and can also reduce your need for sleep at night. Napping can be bad if you sleep through the whole sleep cycle (~90-110 minutes). However, napping before ~4 pm and for less than ~40 minutes (not entering deep sleep) is commonly recommended. The trick is not to enter the deep sleep and take ourselves into a deep state of relaxation. You will be aware of your surroundings and slow breathing will help to relax. Power naps take only 5-20 minutes and yet be very effective as well.
4. I can’t sleep without my sleeping pills. According to nearly all experts and recent studies sleeping pills do not help with chronic, long-term insomnia. In general, sleeping pills and sleep medications are most effective when used sparingly, either occasionally or for short-term situations, such as traveling across time zones, recovering from a medical procedure or treating a stress related insomnia. Experts also widely agree that sleeping tablets treat the symptoms of insomnia, not its causes. Sleeping pills break the natural, inbuilt confidence to fall asleep: we feel it is impossible to sleep without any aid. Please note: never come off your medication suddenly. Make sure you discuss this with your doctor first.
5. Natural remedies and alternative ‘treatments’ are all rubbish. Well, if you ask a doctor who has been educated in Western world most of them would agree with this claim because most alternative treatments lack scientific evidence. Yet they have been here thousands of years and helped millions of people. The key here is to understand that there is no quick solution to resolve something as complex as chronic insomnia. However, if lavender oil in bath or pure scent with yoga or relaxing music with meditation or chamomile tea on the sofa helps you to relax there’s nothing wrong with it. Learning to relax, finding inner peace and restoring the positive bond with sleep are, according to many experts, the most vital steps towards better sleep. Sometimes we need to give us ‘treats’ and enjoy life with all our senses just a bit more. This said, building must-do routines is unhealthy.
6. Wine helps me to wind down and sleep. Several recent studies indicate that even small amounts (2-3 small wine glasses) of alcohol in the evening can actually have a disruptive effect on sleep. It can trick us as it helps us to fall asleep at the beginning of the night but as alcohol gets absorbed into our body, it puts us into lighter form of sleep (hence the non-refreshed feelings in the morning). It also creates dehydration waking up in the middle of the night to drink and then we need to go to toilet more often than usual. A general rule of thumb is to avoid alcohol up to 6 hours before bedtime. Unfortunately, the majority of alcohol consumption takes place in the evenings leading to disruptive sleep.
7. Sleeping into reserve helps to get the right amount of sleep. One of the biggest root causes for insomnia in the western societies is sleep-binging. People change their sleep rhythm forward at the weekend – going to bed later and rising later. They also sleep more at the weekend so they are – for quite obvious reasons – not tired on Sunday night. This can lead to anxiety on Sunday and Monday nights, triggering worries about sleep (which is the biggest single reason for not sleeping) and a snowball effect starts to spread the fears to other nights as well. The foundation for a vicious cycle has been laid.
8. I have always slept poorly – I am an insomniac forever. Well, some people certainly are more sensitive sleepers than others. But we all have access to decent, better sleep. Chronic insomnia is a learned habit and for this reason it can be unlearned.
9. There is one cure/quick fix for my insomnia – I just have to find it. Many experts advocate their own specific and detailed treatment programs and – not so surprisingly – many of these programs share many of the same principles. The fact is that the causes for poor sleep are multifaceted. What suits one person might be totally ineffective for another person. There is no simple answer in here. The trick is to learn to understand your own causes and then test and try treatments and solutions tackling those causes. The key is not to treat symptoms (like sleeping pills do) but causes and improve sleep step by step and to quicker identify the triggers that lead to poor sleep cycles.
10. People who can’t sleep are depressed
Which comes first: depression or insomnia? The relationship of depression and insomnia is two-way and for this reason it’s hard to identify which was there first. Chronic sleep problems affect 50% to 80% of the patients in a typical psychiatric practice, compared with 10% to 18% of adults in the general population. Doctors have traditionally viewed insomnia and other sleep disorders as symptoms of depression and other mental health problems. However, the recent studies indicate that insomnia more often precedes depression than the other way round. New information shows that treating insomnia will help treat your depression. Furthermore, the relationship between insomnia and depression is far from simple. Most experts today agree that that insomnia and depression are two distinct but often overlapping disorders.