Sleep Experts Debunk 15 Sleep Myths

Rebecca Robbins: All right. “Many adults need five
hours of sleep or less.” Now, this is a myth. “Loud snoring is annoying
but mostly harmless.” David Rapoport: Loud
snoring is actually a sign that there is a
blockage in your throat. Robbins: “Your brain
and body will adapt to less sleep.” This is a myth. I’m Dr. Rebecca Robbins. I’m a postdoctoral
research fellow at the Brigham and
Women’s Hospital and Harvard
Medical School. Rapoport: And I’m
Dr. David Rapoport. I’m a professor of medicine at the Icahn School of
Medicine at Mount Sinai, and I run the research
program in sleep. Robbins: And we’re here
today to debunk some of the most common
myths about our sleep. “Watching TV in bed is a good way to relax
before sleep.” Now, this is not something that we would
necessarily recommend. If you turn the television
on and if it’s close to you, that’s a source of
bright-blue light. So, bright light is one
of the strongest cues to our circadian rhythm. It kick-starts our
body and our brain to become awake and
alert in the morning. It’s called a zeitgeber, the strongest input
to that circadian, the awake phase
of our rhythm. Rapoport: “Drinking
booze before bed will improve your sleep.” So, this is a very
commonly used tactic for people who have
trouble sleeping, and they have a drink. It’s a drug. It’s very much like
a sleeping pill. And it is true that it
will help you get to sleep, as long as you don’t
drink too much. One or two drinks, perhaps. What you do, however, is it
disrupts the normal sleep. It suppresses REM sleep, which is a normal
part of your sleep that comes on a little
while after you go to sleep, typically 30 to 60
minutes later. And then, when it comes that the alcohol has
gotten out of your system, then the REM comes back
perhaps at the wrong time, perhaps too strong,
and it disrupts things. And so basically it is
not generally recommended that alcohol be used
as a sleeping pill. “Lying in bed with
your eyes closed is almost as
good as sleeping.” I think that one’s pretty
definitely not correct. Sleep is a very
specific process that your body
goes through. The most common
myth, if you will, that we got rid of in the
scientific field 50 years ago is that sleep was like,
you know, taking your car and putting it in the garage
and turning off the key and leaving it there, and then you come
back the next morning and it just is parked. Sleep is not like that at all. Sleep is a very
active process. When you go to sleep,
you enter one stage. A little while later,
you enter another stage. It gets
progressively deeper. You then have
the REM sleep, and then you wake
up momentarily, and that whole cycle
takes an hour to an hour and a half,
and then it starts again, and it happens three to
five times in a night. And if you disrupt
any of that, something happens, and the
next morning you feel it. You don’t feel rested. Now, we don’t understand
how that actually happens or why that happens, but
we do know it does happen. So when you’re lying in bed,
none of that is happening. If your eyes are closed
and you’re not asleep, it just doesn’t count. Robbins: Next. Rapoport: “If you can’t
sleep, you should stay in bed and try to fall back asleep.” If you don’t fall asleep, we generally recommend
that you not stretch it out and stress yourself out
by just trying. And there’s
probably nothing that can prevent sleep as well as,
“I’ve gotta go to sleep.” [Robbins laughs]
“I’ve gotta go to sleep.” “I’ve gotta go to sleep.”
Robbins: “I need to!” Rapoport: You can feel
your pulse and your blood
pressure going up. So what we try
and do when we work with
somebody who has this problem
with insomnia is exactly the
opposite of that. We try and tell them,
relax, don’t worry about it. Stay in bed for a little
while and see what happens. But don’t try to go
to sleep, just relax. And if you can’t relax and
if you don’t go to sleep, it’s probably better
to get up so that you don’t
associate the bed with a stressful situation. Robbins: All right.
“Many adults need five hours of sleep or less.” Now, this is a myth. We have scores of
epidemiological data and data from the
sleep lab to show that five hours
is not enough for the vast
majority of adults. There may be
some individuals that maybe do
OK on six hours, but much less than that
really is a myth. Now, you might hear
people brag about this, saying, “Oh I get five,
I’m just fine.” But by and large, we do
see those people likely making up for lost
sleep on the weekends or in power naps,
for instance. So, for the vast
majority of us, the recommendation really
is seven to eight hours. Rapoport: This is a
real problem that the sleep field has
been trying to address, and that is that not
sleeping has been perceived as a macho thing. It proves how great you are, it proves how manly
you are in some cases. Sleeping is actually good, and you should sort of
be proud of the fact that you sleep to your need. Robbins: “Your brain and body
will adapt to less sleep.” Rapoport: That sounds
like yours. Robbins: No. This is a myth. We see that, just
like good nutrition or a great, healthy diet
is so important, we similarly have a
diet that we need our brains and our bodies
to be at their best. Rapoport: There are actual,
formal studies that have tested how people perform
with lack of sleep and how they think
they are performing. And it turns out that we
basically are really lousy at saying how
sleepy we are. So you know you feel bad when you haven’t
had enough sleep, but you have no idea
how bad you are, and your performance
keeps deteriorating the more you don’t sleep or restrict your sleep
over multiple days, and you think, “Oh,
I’ve settled in. I have a little headache, and
it doesn’t really bother me. I’m doing just great.” And what is actually
happening is you’re performing less
and less well on the various things
that we can test, including driving simulators. You’re falling asleep
for three or four seconds continuously, without
knowing it. Robbins: All right. “It
doesn’t matter what time of day you sleep.” Rapoport: If you look
at our biology, we have, inside
our brain, a clock. That clock is set to say, “This is a good
time to sleep.” And then at another
time it says, “This is a good
time to be out.” Sleep is timed. It doesn’t just happen. And even if you don’t
sleep for the whole night, you’ll be more and more
sleepy all night long. But in the morning,
you’ll get a second wind, and that’s because the clock
says, “Up, time to be up.” It doesn’t matter that you
didn’t sleep, it’s time to be up. As Rebecca said, we’ve
gained an incredible ability to not abide by that rhythm. And the problem is
that people think that they can get
away with things that our biology
just won’t let us do. Nurses have been
most studied for this, and firefighters and
emergency workers and people who
live on ships. They all pay a price,
epidemiologically. We’ve shown higher
heart disease, more tendency to
gain weight, and a variety of
malfunctions and difficulties as time goes on. You can do it, but
it’s gonna cost you. Robbins: “Exercising within
four hours of bedtime will disturb your sleep.” Rapoport: What we give
as advice is that about an hour before sleep, you wanna try and avoid
active kind of things, and exercise certainly
is one of them. On the other hand, there
are people who exercise close to sleep and
do very well. So I don’t think we
should say, you know, if you’re somebody who exercises regularly
in the evening and you sleep beautifully and you feel rested
the next morning, that you should
give up exercise, ’cause I think that would
be a bad bit of advice. You’ll gain weight, you’ll lose the toning
that you’ve gotten, so on and so forth. On the other hand, if you
haven’t been doing it, I probably wouldn’t start
exercising at night. And if you’re having
trouble with sleep, that’s one of the
first things we look at, after drugs like caffeine,
to try and get rid of. Robbins: All right.
“Remembering your dreams is a sign of a
good night’s sleep.” Rapoport: I think that
there is a huge variation in how much people
remember their dreams. Some of it has to do
with when you wake up. If you wake up
during REM sleep, you almost always
will remember a dream. Some of us don’t
remember anything at all about our dreams, and it doesn’t
seem to harm them. But it’s not a true thing that just because you don’t
remember your dreams, that you’re not
having good sleep. What tells you you’re
having good sleep is how you feel
the next day. Robbins: Now, if you’re
waking up with nightmares, that could be a simple sign that maybe your
bedroom is too hot and you need to turn
down the temperature. ‘Cause a hot bedroom
environment unfortunately can create fragmented sleep and cause you to wake up
often from nightmares. Now, “Eating cheese (or
other food) before bed causes nightmares.” Rapoport: I don’t think I’m
aware of any particular food that will do that
to everybody, but it’s very clear
that being uncomfortable will precipitate both
bad sleep and waking up and maybe even nightmares. So, imagine somebody with
irritable bowel syndrome who knows that whenever
they eat, whatever, gluten or some
specific food, spicy foods, it upsets their stomach
when they’re awake. Well, guess what? If they eat it before
they go to sleep, it’ll upset their sleep, and it may show up
as a nightmare. Robbins: “Loud snoring
is annoying but mostly harmless.” Rapoport: Loud snoring
is actually a sign that there is a blockage
in your throat. The mildest form
of blockage just causes vibration, noise. If you’ve ever played
with a piece of grass and you blow through it, you know that if you
blow through a tube or a structure that
can vibrate, it starts to vibrate
and make noise. Many instruments are based
on exactly that principle. You’re creating a vibration by blowing through a
partially blocked tube. So snoring is just that. And if that’s all it was, it wouldn’t be all
that bad for you. But, unfortunately, it
usually isn’t just by itself. And especially when, as
they say on the question, loud snoring. That kind of snoring, and
especially if it’s associated with gasps and
snorts and pauses, is actually a sign of
a very common disorder called sleep apnea. And sleep apnea is
when that blockage gets a little bit worse
than just causing vibration and actually blocks
the flow of air in. And when that happens,
you’re actually choking. And when that
gets complete, we call it an apnea, “without breathing,”
from the Greek. And your body defends
itself against this blockage by waking up,
’cause everything gets normal when
you wake up. The trouble is that then
you go back to sleep and it happens again, and it can happen
every 30 to 60 seconds. Robbins: “Hitting
snooze bar is better than
getting up.” We often hear that people have two, three,
four, five alarms set up before they
get up in the morning. Now, the best thing
for all of us to do would actually be to
practice sleep hygiene and have a
consistent bedtime and actually wake up
with an alarm. But of course that’s a
lot harder in actuality. The best thing for us,
by and large, is to set your alarm clock for the latest time that
you can in the morning to allow for as much
sleep as possible but that will allow you to
go about your daily routine and get to work on time. Because if we’re hitting
several snooze bars and waiting, I believe
it’s nine minutes, and then another
nine minutes, all of that incremental
sleep is very rarely that. It’s much more fragmented. It’s very light
sleep, if anything. And the majority of REM
sleep is in the morning right before we wake up. So try to protect
that as best you can and set your alarm clock for
the latest possible time. “You can simply become
a morning person.” Rapoport: So, the
difference between a morning and
an evening person appears to be influenced
by lots of things that are probably genetic. And it’s not something you
can just change by training. What you can do is
trick your biology into thinking that you
live in Chicago but you work in New York. And that’s what
blue light does. Robbins: With some
blue-light therapy, actually, using bright-blue light
in the morning can help shift those
true evening people a little bit earlier. Rapoport: It
basically tells you that you’re actually in
a different time zone from where you are, and that
shifts you a little bit. So that’s the approach we use when the
problem is severe and there’s a need for that. It’s actually shifting
when morning is rather than shifting whether
you work in the morning. Robbins: So, “You can
catch up on sleep by sleeping in
on the weekends.” Now, for the vast
majority of us, this is a very
common practice, this kind of sleeping in, and unfortunately,
in our society, we term it as this luxury, you know, “Oh, to sleep in.” And that’s because
most of us aren’t getting enough sleep
during the work week or adding bricks into our
backpack of sleep debt. Now, what sleeping in does is it sends a cue to
our circadian rhythm that we’re trying to
change time zones. So if we extend our rising
time by more than an hour, two, three, worse, four
hours into the morning, you might feel better
than if you got up early, but that sleep the next night
is gonna be compromised. Why? We call this
social jet lag. Our body is trying to adapt. If you’re a New
Yorker, physiologically, your body thinks
you’re in London and you’re trying to
adjust to that time, so you’re gonna be
fighting your physiology come bedtime that
next night. So the best practice is to keep a consistent
bedtime schedule and try to get as much
sleep as you can. Now, if you do have an
excessive sleep debt and you really need to pay
that back on the weekends, the best way
without interrupting your circadian rhythm would be to do that with
a nap in the afternoon because that’s not
gonna change your body’s physiological
circadian rhythm. “Boredom makes you tired even if you got
enough sleep.” Now, yes, it is very true that
a boring meeting or lecture, especially in the
afternoon, may be soporific. But if you’re in that
environment and sleep-deprived, it is a bellwether sign that you’re not
getting enough sleep. So, when people say, “The
airplane makes me tired. I get in the plane,
I fall right asleep.” Boredom alone, of course, is
not a sleep-inducing state. Rapoport: Boredom
is a way of unmasking your
sleep tendency. We, in fact, use
that in testing. We put people in
boring situations and see how long it takes
them to fall asleep. If they are fully
satisfying their sleep need, they don’t fall asleep
for at least 20 minutes. Robbins: Sleep is so
critical to our health and our wellness
and our well-being, and every night
does count. In light of all the things
that we’ve talked about, remember that if it’s
not broken, don’t fix it. So do try to implement
some of the strategies or put some of the
strategies to work that we’ve talked
about today if you find that you
have a problem, because at the end of
the day, small changes do make a really
big difference, especially when it
comes to our sleep.

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