Most of us aren't getting enough sleep. Yet everyone seems to have an opinion about the best ways to fall and stay asleep.
But how do you sort through that noise and find the methods that work for you?
Consider yourself in luck.
Here are the definitive answers to the biggest myths about sleep:
Getty Images/Joe Raedle
Myth #1: Everyone must get 8 hours of sleep
FACT: Put down the stopwatch. Although some of us do best with eight hours of sleep, others do better with seven, nine, or even four hours. It's all influenced by factors including genetics, age, and activity level.
For example, there are several genes connected to being a "short sleeper," someone who can function on just a few hours of sleep.
Myth #2: Alcohol helps you sleep
FACT: Although it might make you feel drowsy, that nightcap might actually disrupt your sleep. A small Australian study found that people who drank alcohol before bed tended to have certain patterns in their brain consistent with disrupted sleep. So even if they were experiencing restorative sleep, those waves negated any positive effect.
Scientists have been studying the counterintuitive relationship between the drowsiness that comes from drinking alcohol and actual sleep since the 1930s. There's some evidence to suggest it has to do with the body metabolizing alcohol at the same time it's trying to sleep, suggesting that it's difficult for the body to multitask.
Myth #3: You can catch up on sleep
FACT: Yes, the idea of being able to sleep in until noon on the weekends sounds enticing. But it's wreaking havoc on your internal body clock: Every time you shift your hours, it feels roughly like flying from New York to California and then back again in one weekend, leaving your body confused on Monday.
The best way to prevent it? Try to get a consistent amount of sleep each night at roughly the same time.
Myth #4: Sleep deprivation won't mess up other aspects of your health
FACT: While you may not feel it after one night of poor sleep, sleep deprivation can contribute to some pretty serious health conditions when it's chronic and consistent.
Sleep deprivation has been linked to an increased risk of diseases such as diabetes, obesity, coronary heart disease, and stroke. But even in the short term, you may notice some negative consequences, such as poor vision, mood swings, and headaches.
Myth #5: Drinking warm milk can help you sleep
FACT: Like turkey (we'll get to that later), milk contains tryptophan, a compound our bodies convert into the sleep-influencing brain chemical serotonin. But there's not enough of it in milk — 10 times too little, actually — to help you fall asleep.
Myth #6: Naps are bad for you
FACT: It's complicated. Nap too much during the day, and you risk not being able to fall asleep at night. But, in short 10-20-minute stints, researchers have continually found them to be effective ways to help people feel more alert during the day. Plus, naps have been linked to better memory, mental performance, and even boosted immune systems.
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Myth #7: You can only dream during REM sleep
FACT: Contrary to popular belief, you can actually dream during all phases of sleep.
The two primary stages are REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM. Though you dream during both stages, your dreams during non-REM are different, according to experts.
Your dreams during non-REM are usually related to daily events whereas REM dreams tend to be the more fantastical type.
Myth #8: Counting sheep helps you fall asleep
FACT: If you regularly have trouble sleeping, this method might actually make you take longer to fall asleep. A 41-person study of people with insomnia found that on the nights they were instructed to count sheep, it took longer for them to fall asleep than on nights with no instructions.
Looking for other pre-sleep thoughts? Try picturing relaxing images. When those same participants did this, they fell asleep quicker than with no instructions or with instructions to count sheep.
Myth #9: If you wake a sleepwalker, you could scare them to death
FACT: Yes, if you wake a sleepwalker, you'll probably find them shocked and confused. But you certainly won't kill them. That's because sleepwalking often takes place when someone is experiencing deep sleep, which will make them difficult to wake. It'll also take them longer to become fully aware after regaining consciousness.
However, the notion that you'll kill them from shock is nonsense. If you have a common sleepwalker amongst you, pay attention to his or her sleep patterns. Sleepwalking is more common amongst those who are sleep deprived.
Myth #10: If you die in your dreams, then you die in real life
FACT: Don't worry, you won't. This myth follows close behind the misconception that you could kill a sleep walker by waking them.
While you won't die from your dreams, scientists still struggle to understand why we need so much sleep in the first place. After all, lying unconscious for hours on end could have made our ancient ancestors vulnerable to predators.
Myth #11: REM sleep is the most restful type of sleep
FACT: REM sleep is the one sleep phase where our brains and body behave almost as if we're awake.
The first REM cycle usually kicks in about 90 minutes after you fall asleep and is identified by an increase in heart rate, a rise in blood pressure, and temporarily paralyzed limbs. The most restive and restorative phase of sleep is actually during non-REM sleep.
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Myth #12: People who are under anesthesia are asleep
FACT: Just because you're unconscious doesn't mean you're asleep. When we snooze, our brains produce certain types of brain waves.
When we're under an anesthetic, however, the brain hardly emits any brain waves at all, which clearly distinguishes it from regular sleep. In fact, anesthesia is more like a "reversible drug-induced coma" than a good night's slumber.
Myth #13: Turkey makes you sleepy
FACT: This myth has been de-bunked numerous times, but it still manages to surface each year around Thanksgiving. The idea behind it is that, like milk, turkey contains tryptophan, a compound our bodies convert into the sleep-influencing brain chemical serotonin.
But turkey actually contains less tryptophan than cheddar. So why don't you pass out after a grilled cheese? In other words, turkey probably isn't the culprit. According to experts, what's really making you sleepy is simply all the extra food you eat!
So next Thanksgiving, try to watch your intake of all those heavy foods. It might help you sleep easier.
Myth #14: Insomnia means that you have trouble falling asleep
FACT: Insomnia is one of many sleep disorders, but it doesn't necessarily mean that you have trouble getting to sleep.
About 1 in 3 Americans suffers from at least some form of mild insomnia, which could mean they experience any of the following:
- Waking up too early and not being able to fall back asleep
- Waking frequently during the night
- Waking without feeling refreshed
- Trouble falling asleep
Myth #15: The elderly need less sleep
FACT: The elderly tend to sleep for a shorter time at night and wake up earlier in the morning, but that doesn't necessarily mean they need less sleep overall.
Older people tend to wake up more throughout the night, meaning they tend to be less well-rested compared with if they'd stayed asleep, Sudhansu Chokroverty, who specializes in neurophysiology and sleep medicine at the JFK Medical Center, told WebMD.
"This is why they take naps during the day," Chokroverty said.