Dozing Through Bad Sleep Habits: Four Sleep Myths Debunked

You’re eating a balanced diet. You actually find time to go to the gym. You keep regular appointments with your doctor, floss, hydrate, and make sure to get at least four to five hours’ sleep a night, or at least you rest your eyes. 

The whole nine yards, right?

But which one are you doing wrong?

In fact, which one of these might even be canceling out the benefit of every other one of those habits on the list?

The short answer…

Sleep.

Every night (or even worse, every day), millions of adults are engaged in bad sleep habits, largely because we’re told myths about how it’s done and how it ought to be that we never quite seem to rid ourselves of. 

The trouble is, poor sleep habits can do a lot more damage than just leaving you drowsy, and the only way to avoid this is to learn about some of the more common myths you’ve probably encountered without even knowing they were completely wrong. Chances are you've been keeping one or two of these habits yourself.

So here are some of the worst offenders.

Snoring is Either Funny or Exasperating

Snoring is usually treated as either comedic or annoying. It’s also pretty common: “About 40 percent of adult men and 24 percent of adult women are habitual snorers.” 

There’s a good chance you’ve slept next to one of these chainsaw-esque sleepers, and you know how exasperating it can be. You might even have snorked yourself awake one unfortunate night, if you’re among this number.

But did you know that it can be a sign of a serious threat to your health?

Snoring is the noisy vibration resulting from a partially blocked airway. It’s usually harmless, although it might leave you with a sore throat in the morning. Even then, it can degrade sleep quality and leave you feeling tired even after eight or nine hours.

Heavy snoring, on the other hand, is often an indicator of sleep apnea.

Sleep apnea is a condition in which a sleeper experiences pauses in breathing, usually for a few seconds, although they can last even longer. In such cases, the loss of breath interrupts brain and bodily functions, and can disrupt healthy sleep, leading to drowsiness and diminished reflexes, decreased cognitive abilities, and an increased ‘sleep debt,’ in which the body has undergone insufficient rest for extended periods of time.

There are a few things that can be done to avoid some of the side effects of snoring. These include:

  • Sleeping on your side, which helps to keep the airways in your throat, mouth and nose open. Sleeping on your back can result in particularly bad snoring.
  • Avoid alcohol before sleep. Alcohol can relax your throat muscles and allow the windpipe to settle in on itself, forming and obstacle course for your breath to force its way through.
  • Try to nip colds in the bud. A buildup of mucus in the throat can make it difficult for air to pass in and out, thus increasing the likelihood of a very noisy night.

So if someone sleeping next to you is a snorer, let them know. They could do with the hint.

Screentime Can Help You Drift Off

Everyone knows that the calming blue light from your television, phone, or tablet can help you tune out and drop off. That’s common sense, right?

You’ve probably guessed it, but that couldn’t be more untrue.

As we’ve become more accustomed and attached to our devices in recent years, and as they offer increasingly sophisticated distractions to keep us engaged, it can be harder and harder to switch off the screen.

But that blue light is actually disrupting your brain’s activity. Blue wavelengths are among the most disruptive, and that exposure to light also disrupts your body’s natural sense of time, which has been conditioned over millennia to align itself with daylight.

Exposure to light can also suppress the brain’s production of melatonin, a hormone that influences sleep cycles.

Continued sleep deprivation or excessive light exposure have been suggested to increase your chances of developing conditions including:

  • Diabetes and obesity: studies have suggested that poor sleep habits disrupt the normal function of the digestive system, raising blood sugar levels and causing you to feel less full after eating.
  • Depression: decreased brain function also damages production of serotonin, which is one of the many organic chemicals linked to happiness and self-esteem.
  • Cancer: a number of studies have suggested a link between reduced melatonin levels and higher risks for certain cancers.

So what can you do?

Well, you can start by turning off the screen. 

After that hardest first step, reading a book, taking a bath, listening to music, or relaxing activities like knitting or diary-keeping can all be helpful in letting your brain know that it’s time to shut down for the day.

All An Adult Needs is a Few Hours

This is probably the most dangerous sleep myth of them all, because it’s widespread, and its effects are horrendous.

You were probably told at some point that as you age, you need less and less sleep. 

On the face of it, that seems reasonable, right?

Infants seem to sleep for days, kids have boundless energy, and by the time you’re grown, you seem to have come to think of eight hours as a Saturday morning.

However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommend at least seven to nine hours of sleep per night for adults over 18. Sleep patterns can change with time, as can preferences, but there has never been any safe or reliable recommendation for fewer than seven hours. 

It’s likely you’ll lull yourself into being accustomed to an ongoing lack of sleep, but that just feeds back into the previously-mentioned sleep debt, as well as negative conditions such as:

  • Obesity
  • Hypertension
  • Decreased sex drive
  • Lowered attentiveness
  • Increased risk of accidents

Getting what might seem like an excessive amount of sleep can feel strange, but it can improve your mood, your health, and extend your life.

A Nightcap is the Perfect Way to End the Evening

An alcoholic drink before bed is a traditional way to nod off, and can be bourbon, brandy, fortified wines, liqueurs, or cocktails like hot toddies. The usual argument is that it acts as a tranquilizer to relax the muscles and calm the mind.

There seems to be at least some truth behind this one, but not enough to prop up the old-fashioned myth. A number of off-the-shelf sleep aids may contain as much as 10% alcohol, but the benefit of alcohol as a sedative changes dramatically depending on how accustomed to alcohol consumption the person in question is.

Of course, there’s the obvious point that it might not be the healthiest idea to make your sleep dependent upon any intoxicant, let alone one as destructive as alcohol. 

A number of ill effects can be linked to pre-sleep alcohol consumption, not least of which is sleep apnea, but also:

  • Tooth decay
  • Weight gain
  • Diabetes
  • Heightened blood pressure

But there’s another risk of alcohol that might not be quite as obvious: disrupted REM sleep.

Rapid-eye movement, or REM, sleep is the phase of the sleep cycle humans fall into generally about 90 minutes after initially falling asleep. It’s during REM sleep that we dream, and is thought to be the most regenerative period of sleep, restoring and strengthening brain and organ health and functioning.

Essentially, alcohol can help you get to sleep more easily, but the quality of sleep declines markedly, leaving you more tired than before. While you’re fooling your brain into getting to sleep more quickly, you’re also damaging your physical health and risking developing an alcohol dependency.

Rather than use alcohol, doctors recommend establishing regular sleeping and waking times, getting regular exercise, and avoiding caffeine and nicotine before sleep.

Conclusion

Everybody sleeps, so it should come as no surprise that there are so many myths surrounding how we rest at night. Just about anything to do with the human body has its own set of legends and superstitions, and the sleep cycle is no exception.

While many of these are harmless, it’s always best to know what is and isn’t true, so that you can ensure that your rest is as comfortable and restorative as it can be.

There are myths and facts about every aspect of sleep, from your habits to the mattress you sleep on. In fact, there are quite a few mattress myths we’d like to bust while we’re at it--so read below to get straight on those rumors and urban legends regarding your mattress!

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