13 Myths About Sleep You Should Stop Believing

The importance of living healthily during the day, from exercise to hydration, is increasingly indisputable.

Yet despite spending much of our lives asleep, a surprising number of myths persist about this period that's so important for both body and mind.

Dr. Rachel Ward, a family doctor who has appeared on BBC Breakfast, explained the multiple benefits of getting a good night's sleep to Newsweek.

She said: "Day to day, sleep energises us both physically and mentally and without it we feel tired, irritable and generally function less well.

"Though we can recover from an occasional bad nights sleep, getting enough, quality sleep in the longer term, is crucial for our health and well-being.

"Chronic sleep deprivation increases your risk of serious medical conditions such as obesity, heart disease, diabetes and most importantly leads to a shortened life expectancy."

Newsweek spoke with a range of experts about the most common sleep myths to separate the fact from fiction.

1. Alcohol helps you sleep

myths about sleep
If you consume alcohol, make sure it’s a couple of hours before bed so your body has time to process it before sleeping SeventyFour/Getty Images

Alcohol has long been recognised for sedative effect and may help someone fall asleep more quickly

However, as Dr. Deborah Lee of Dr Fox Online Pharmacy notes, although you may fall asleep more quickly after drinking alcohol, you are more likely to have a disturbed night, and with reduced sleep quality.

"This is because alcohol affects the sleep-wake cycle," she says. "After drinking six or more units in one evening, you are likely to have less all-important, restorative, Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep.

"This can make you feel tired and sleepy the next day. If you drink alcohol before bedtime, you are also more likely to have to get up in the night to pass urine, as alcohol has a diuretic effect, and this too disrupts your sleep.

"You are also more likely to snore in your sleep after drinking alcohol, which again disturbs your sleep."

Dr. Sohere Roked, a hormone doctor, warned that alcohol consumption, as well as sleeping pills, can lead to an unwanted cycle.

She said: "Those who feel sluggish the next day are more likely to consume more caffeine and sugar, making sleep difficult and perpetuating the cycle.

"Similar consequences are mirrored with the consumption of alcohol. The actual quality of your sleep can be enhanced when your circadian rhythm is synchronized.

"The hormone melatonin is an important contributor to many biological and physiological regulations in the body. It is an effective hormone for human biorhythm (circadian rhythm).

"The main role of this hormone is to maintain the biological clock and to adjust the body rhythm. With this in mind, to truly improve the quality of your sleep I suggest, at least 1-hour before sleep, turning the lights off and closing the curtains for darkness (which triggers melatonin).

"No blue light gadgets at least 1-hour before bed (or during the night if you wake up). Every evening 200-300mg of Magnesium—at night, magnesium glycinate works well."

Elizabeth Stewart, a nutritionist at Vitl, suggests: "If you consume alcohol, make sure it's a couple of hours before bed so your body has time to process it before sleeping."

2. You sleep better alone

Dr. Verena Senn, Sleep Expert at Emma - The Sleep Company, who has spent nearly 15 years in research on the brain, sleep patterns and psychological behaviour, suggests sleeping alongside another person "can improve the overall quality of your sleep," despite issues like snoring, wriggling and cover-stealing.

"Breathing alignment is a key benefit of sharing a bed," she says. "Regulating your breath in line with your partners allows you to fall asleep faster and enter much deeper sleep.

"So widely documented are the benefits that a sleeping robot has been created that mimics the breathing patterns and heartbeat of a partner to help those with sleep issues."

3. Babies should nap in daylight

baby myths about sleep
Often by insisting that your little one should sleep in the daylight, you’re making it more difficult for yourself JNemchinova/Getty Images

Lucy Shrimpton, a sleep consultant for parents and founder of The Sleep Nanny, says that insisting that your baby should sleep in the daylight is only making life "more difficult for yourself."

She says: "Often parents want their children to know the difference between day and night but it's not about that, it's about sleep, they know the difference.

"If your little one does go to sleep in natural light, that's fine, but if they're struggling to fall asleep in the daylight, try putting a snooze shade over their pram or pushchair as this not only reduces stimulation but also natural light coming through which prevents the release of melatonin."

4. You can 'catch up on sleep'

While it is a common belief that you can simply catch up on sleep over the weekend, this is not necessarily true.

Abbas Kanani, pharmacist at Chemist Click, believes while occasionally catching up on the odd hour is possible, it is inadvisable over the longterm.

He said: "If you are sleep deprived and have poor sleep hygiene, a sleep marathon over the weekend is likely to leave you feeling worse off, and more tired.

"The more you sleep, the better you will feel—there is a fine line between sleeping too much and too little.

"The optimum about of sleep is between seven and nine hours. Sleeping more or less than this can leave you feeling tired and groggy."

5. The brain shuts down when you sleep

myths about sleep
The brain does not shut down when you go to sleep, it just goes into different sleep stages gorodenkoff/Getty Images

A common complaint is not sleeping due to work-related stress or a problematic personal life and feeling tired even after a nap.

Lydia Kimmerling, founder of The Happiness Explorer, explains this is because the brain does not shut down when you go to sleep, it just goes into different sleep stages.

"Going to sleep feeling happy will help you get deep sleep, which is the most restorative stage of sleep," she says.

"If you have had a hard day or have a lot on your mind, it's better to be proactive about your happiness before sleep, than to just try and go straight to bed.

"This may include doing a ten-minute meditation (there are thousands on YouTube) before bed.

"Or writing in your journal so that you do some of your emotional processing whilst awake. Whilst your brain won't shut down, you can switch off."

Shirley Billson, a hypnotherapist at The Menopause Anxiety Coach, added this can result in an "unresolved surplus" of stress and emotion which leaks into the following day.

She adds: "If this goes unchecked for a lengthy period, impaired coping mechanisms or even depression can result."

6. You need less sleep as you get older

Although sleeping demands alter throughout our lives, you do not necessarily require less.

Dr. Ward explains: "As you age, your circadian rhythm changes so you tend to feel sleepy earlier in the evening. The amount of deep sleep often decreases, making you more likely to wake during the night.

"Older adults are also more likely to nap during the day compared to younger adults.

"The way we reach our sleep requirement will therefore frequently be different as we get older but our overall need is stable."

7. Eating cheese before bedtime gives you nightmares

myths about sleep
Eating cheese before bedtime is not associated with giving nightmares Tero Vesalainen/Getty Images

Dr. Lee tells how this common myth was debunked in 2015 by The British Cheese Board: "200 volunteers were asked to eat 20g of cheese half an hour before bedtime. Their results showed quite the opposite.

"72 percent slept well, 67 percent were able to remember their dreams, and none reported having any nightmares.

"Nutritionists commented cheese contains the amino acid L-tryptophan, which is known to help relieve stress and may actually aid sleep."

Sleep expert Dr. Senn adds: "However, the closer we eat to our sleep time, the harder our body will be working to digest while we rest, which can cause sleep disturbances."

8. Exercising before bed disrupts sleep

myths about sleep
Gentle exercise before bed should not adversely affect achieving a good night’s slee gorodenkoff/Getty Images

Contrary to common belief, gentle exercise before bed should not adversely affect achieving a good night's sleep.

Fi Clark, Head of Yoga at FLY LDN said: "Practicing a mellow and restorative style of yoga teamed with breathwork is a fantastic antidote to the faced-paced and digitally connected lives we live.

"Not only does working with focussed breath help to soothe your vagus nerve and stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system.

"But practicing something like YIN yoga will also help to de-stress your muscles and connective tissue as well, releasing areas of tension build-up leaving you feeling totally relaxed and disconnected from whatever has been happening during the day that may keep your mind cluttered when you try to sleep."

9. Leave crying babies alone to teach them to sleep

The decision about whether to leave your baby to cry is a tough one for many tired new parents. But sleep consultant Lucy Shrimpton believes sleep training is not something people should do to a child.

She said: "It's a parenting technique and we provide parents with the knowledge and expertise so they can parent their child around sleep in a more effective way so that it's more conducive to their development of skills, which means they can settle more easily to sleep and stay asleep longer.

"They don't learn those skills if something is forever putting them to sleep or doing the job for them."

10. There is no cure for snoring

myths about sleep
45 percent of adults snore from time to time, while 25 percent snore regularly Prostock-Studio/Getty Images

An estimated 45 percent of adults snore from time to time, while 25 percent snore regularly—often much to their bed partner's irritation.

And while many of those affected with snoring may be at least middle-aged men or postmenopausal woman there are some options available.

Steve Smith, UK Sales and Marketing Director of snoring aid Mute, said: "Many people wrongly assume it's only overweight individuals who are prone to snoring.

"In fact, there are a number of factors that can contribute such as nasal obstruction, congestion, narrow airways or a deviated septum.

"Hormones can also play a part with pregnant ladies and those in menopause, also prone to mouth breathing and snoring."

Dr. Senn adds: "People who snore often sleep on their back which causes your tongue and throat tissues to block your airways. The solution is to sleep on your side.

"While in the past a popular way to prevent snorers from rolling onto their backs was tennis balls sewn into the back of pyjamas, a more practical (and less uncomfortable) idea is to arrange some large pillows behind your back on your side to keep you from rolling over - after a few weeks of sleeping on your side this will become habit."

11. Naps are healthy

Many people with a spare half-hour window may be tempted to snatch a quick siesta.

However, Niels Eék, psychologist and co-founder of mental wellbeing app Remente, refutes the notion that naps are good for us.

He says: "Though there is evidence to suggest that short 'power' naps in the day can be beneficial to cognitive function, taking irregular and extended (longer than 40 minutes) naps can leave your circadian rhythm all out of whack, meaning you will struggle to sleep properly at night."

But with many adjusting to working from home since the COVID-19 pandemic, he suggest it is important to "find a routine that works for you, including when you sleep."

He adds: "If furlough or working from home has left you napping during the day, it's time to cut the habit. It may feel good in the short term, but in the long run it can be damaging to your sleep cycle."

12. Waking up at night is a cause for concern

sleep myths
A major sleep myth is people waking up during the night means something is wrong patat/Getty Images

A major—and most unhelpful—sleep myth is people waking up during the night means something is wrong.

Nerina Ramlakhan, a sleep expert, physiologist and author, says it is completely normal to wake at night-time and most people will do so around 10 times, without fully realising.

She said: "Waking is maybe a throwback to caveman days—so we've evolved with this rebounding between deep sleep and then semi wakefulness to 'check the cave'.

"A useful survival instinct and we'd probably be extinct if we didn't do this.

"The real problem lies in fretting about waking and then going onto our phones which stops us getting back to sleep."

13. Everybody should sleep in the same way

Everyone's mind, body and environment are unique, meaning it is unreasonable to assume there should be a single approach to sleep.

Experts at SleepSeeker said: "When you are finding it hard to get a good night's sleep, sometimes a trial and error approach can be the best way forward.

"Eight hours sleep is commonly known as being the optimum time to spend in bed, however, the amount of sleep you need is the amount it takes to make you feel awake and alert during the day, whether this be eight or 12 hours.

"So a good way to discover what works for you is to keep a journal of the amount of sleep you had and how you felt the day after."