Mistaken beliefs about sleep are common and pose a significant health threat, a new study warns.
“Sleep is a vital part of life that affects our productivity, mood, and general health and well-being,” said lead investigator Rebecca Robbins. “Dispelling myths about sleep promotes healthier sleep habits which, in turn, promote overall better health.”
Robbins is a postdoctoral research fellow in the department of population health at NYU Langone Health in New York City.
For the study, the researchers reviewed more than 8,000 websites to identify the 20 most common beliefs about sleep.
One of the top myths was the claim of some people who insist they can get by on five hours of sleep a night. The study authors said this poses the most serious health risk due the effects of long-term lack of sleep.
Robbins and her colleagues suggested creating a consistent sleep schedule and getting at least seven hours of shut-eye a night.
And don’t assume your snoring is no big deal — that’s another myth, the study team said. While it can be harmless, snoring can be a sign of sleep apnea, a condition in which breathing stops and starts repeatedly during the night. Left untreated, it can lead to heart problems and other illnesses.
The researchers also dispelled the notion that a drink before bed can help you sleep. Alcohol actually makes it harder to achieve deep sleep, which is crucial for proper daytime functioning, they explained in a news release from NYU Langone.
The study was published online April 16 in the journal Sleep Health.
Study senior investigator Girardin Jean-Louis, a professor in the departments of population health and psychiatry at NYU Langone, said the public needs to be better informed about the importance of sleep.
— Robert Preidt
Bed Basics: How to Get Your Best Sleep Ever
To Bed With You
You may know how important a consistent bedtime and exercise routine are for a good night’s sleep. Maybe you have your alcohol and caffeine use down to a science, too. But what happens when you actually get to bed? What else can help you sleep better? Try these tips and tricks.
Get the Right Mattress for You
There are several types. Whether you have back pain, night sweats, sleep apnea, or you just want a good night’s sleep, there’s not just one perfect choice. Your mattress should be firm enough to support your back and sleep position, but soft enough to fit the shape of your body.
This isn’t always easy to figure out. Some stores will let you test a mattress for several weeks and change it out if you’re not comfortable.
This is the most common type. It uses from 300 to more than 1,000 springs covered in cushioning. These mattresses can be hard or soft, depending on what they’re made of. Some say the more coils, the better. Experts believe once you have 400 coils, more doesn’t make a big difference. If you’re overweight, you may get out of bed easier with this type of mattress. But they work well for most people.
Memory Foam Mattresses
These mold to the contours of your body. They may be especially good if you have muscle or joint pain, or other conditions that make it hard for you to get comfortable. But they make some people too warm. So they may not be a good choice if you heat up a lot when you sleep. If you check one out, pay attention to the smell. Some people don’t like the odor that can come from the chemicals in the foam.
We don’t mean the kind you store in the closet and blow up for out-of-town guests. This is a high-end mattress with air chambers that adjust for firmness and custom support. Your sleep partner can personalize their side of the bed without affecting yours. They’re mechanical, so check some online reviews to make sure you get one that’s dependable.
Pick the Right Sheets
Look for cotton or linen with a thread count between 200 and 400. That’ll make it likely that they’re soft and breathable. Higher counts can trap heat and moisture. Even polyester/cotton blends won’t keep you as cool and dry.
Cottons with longer fibers like pima and Egyptian typically wear best. You won’t know what any sheets feel like until you wash them a few times.
Wash Your Sheets Often
The smell of fresh, clean sheets may actually help you sleep better. Wash them at least once a week. Use medium or low heat to dry them, and skip the fabric softener so they’ll last longer. Don’t forget the pillowcases. They take in lots of oils and sweat from your face.
Choose the Pillow for You
The wrong one can’t just rob you of sleep, it can cause neck pain, numbness, and headaches. A good one keeps its shape and supports your sleep position so your head isn’t too far forward or back.
If yours doesn’t spring back into shape after you fold it in half, it’s probably time for a new one. Replace it every 18 months or so because it can trap mold, pollen, and dust mites that can make you sick or cause allergies.
Make Your Bed!
Sounds crazy, but if you do, you’ll be more likely to get a good night’s sleep. Scientists don’t know why, but it may be that it simply makes you feel good about where you take your nightly rest. A clean bedroom may help, too. No word on whether you have to clean it yourself, though.
Try White Noise
The consistent hum of an air conditioner, fan, or even a long rain can mask sounds that may wake you, like conversation and slamming doors. You can also get machines or phone apps that make white noise of your choice.
If You Sleep on Your Belly
You may toss and turn more to get comfortable, which means you probably won’t sleep as well. Sleeping that way can also strain your neck and lower back. But it’s not always easy to change positions. If you already sleep like this, it helps to use a very soft or thin pillow — or none at all — to keep your neck from hurting.
If You Sleep On Your Back
It can make snoring worse, and it’s hard on your back. That position can also contribute to sleep apnea, a serious condition where your snoring interrupts your breathing.
Putting a pillow or rolled-up towel under your knees can help keep the natural curve of your spine. For your head, you may need a thinner pillow that’s slightly thicker at the bottom so it supports your neck. Memory foam pillows work well because they mold to your shape.
If You Sleep on Your Side
You’re less likely to snore or have back pain. You also have better odds of all-night sleep, and it’s better if you have a bad back, too. All “side sleep” positions are good, but the fetal position, with your knees bent slightly toward your chest, seems to be best. It can help to use a large, firm pillow to bridge the distance from your ear to your shoulder. Another pillow between your legs can help keep your spine in line, as well.
If You’re Pregnant
It’s usually more comfortable and healthy for you and your baby if you sleep on your side. The left side is better, because it gets more blood and nutrients to your baby. But don’t worry if you wake in another position. It can help to put a pillow under your belly and between your legs to support your weight.
What to Wear?
Consider fabric. Cotton is breathable and soft, but it may not keep you warm enough. Flannel is warmer, but it may make you too hot in the summer. Silk is expensive and hard to clean. A looser fit is best.
If your feet get cold, which can be bad for sleep, wear socks. But ones that are too thick can heat up your whole body. If you do get too hot, try sleeping naked. It can keep you cool and lead to longer, deeper sleep.
Sleepless? Know the Signs of Sleep Deprivation
If you haven’t gotten enough rest the night before, the telltale sign could sit right on top of your nose. Acne can flare up when you aren’t getting enough sleep. In fact, sleep deprivation is considered one of the three main acne triggers, along with stress and sweating. Studies have borne this out. It’s possible that by disrupting your hormones, sleeplessness also unsettles the chemical balance in your skin that wards off pimples.
Puffy Eyes and Dark Circles
Sleeplessness takes its toll on your face. Researchers have found that your mouth, forehead, and eyes can reveal to others that you aren’t getting enough rest. In particular, one of the hallmark signs of sleepiness is the presence of dark circles and puffy eyes.
Not all dark circles come from sleep loss, but it is often a contributing factor. One study looked at 200 subjects, mostly women, who had periorbital hyperpigmentation—the medical term for dark circles around their eyes. Of these subjects, 40% suffered from lack of adequate sleep, including insomnia.
In another research test, observers were asked to rate the faces of subjects. A photo of each subject was taken after a full night’s sleep, and another was taken after only 5 hours of sleep, followed by 31 hours of wakefulness. Observers identified the well-rested faces as being more alert, youthful, and attractive most of the time. They also noted eye puffiness and dark circles as one of the most obvious signs the subjects didn’t get enough sleep. Not only that, but the observers judged faces with little rest as appearing sadder as well. So if you want to give off a cheerful vibe, make sure you’re in bed at bedtime.
Sleep Loss Can Lead to Weight Gain
If you’ve had trouble sleeping recently, don’t be surprised if you gain a few extra pounds. Less than six hours of sleep per night puts you at an increased risk of obesity. To understand why, you need to know how sleeplessness affects your body.
When you lose sleep, your body chemistry changes. The hormones that control hunger become imbalanced, leading you to feel hungry more often. You also become less sensitive to insulin, the chemical that lets you absorb the energy from sugar.
The results of these changes have been shown in the laboratory. People forced to go without sleep eat more—particularly high-carb snacks. Those results were confirmed in at least two studies. So if you aren’t getting enough time in bed, watch out for the munchies. They seem to be harder to control when you go without sleep.
Craving Salt, Sugar, and Junk Food
Salty and sugary snacks are especially hard to avoid when you don’t get enough zzzs. Your body seems to crave higher-calorie foods when you’re tired. Given that many calorie-packed foods are sweet or salty, this connection makes sense.
Aside from the obesity risks discussed earlier, eating too much salt and added sugar has been associated with serious health problems. Getting too much sugar puts you at greater risk of diabetes and heart disease, among other conditions. Too much salt can damage your heart and kidneys, and may also harm your bones.
Sipping More Caffeine
When you don’t sleep enough, the magical power of caffeine to perk you up and keep you moving diminishes. Regular coffee drinkers may notice that after a few days of inadequate sleep, their morning joe does little to wake them up.
This has been shown through research. One study gave participants only five hours of sleep for five days in a row. Some of the participants got 200mg of caffeine (about as much as a cup of coffee), and some got a placebo in a double-blinded test.
It didn’t take long for the results to kick in. After three nights of poor sleep, participants who received caffeine no longer showed any advantage as they performed a series of tests designed to demonstrate their alertness. There was one difference noted in the caffeine group, though. Those who were both caffeinated and sleep-deprived rated themselves happier on the first two days, but more annoyed on the following days.
Crankiness and Stress
How do you feel after a night of poor sleep? Most people are familiar with the emotions that come with sleepiness. They can recall feeling cranky, easily angered, and more stressed out. That experience holds up in the laboratory, too. Sleep scientists have shown that going without adequate sleep can make you more sad, angry, stressed out, and emotionally exhausted.
This can turn into a vicious circle. It’s hard to fall asleep when you’re stressed. Stress makes you feel alert and awake, because it’s provoking your body to prepare for fight or flight. One study found that people with insomnia are 20 times more likely to develop panic disorder, which is one type of anxiety disorder. If you fear you may be in the midst of this cycle, the right mental health counselor can help address both your sleep problems and your mood.
Like stress and anxiety, depression is another condition closely associated with inadequate sleep. And like stress, depression can both cause and be caused by lack of sleep. One study showed that people with chronic insomnia stand a five-fold risk of developing depression. Another shows that as many as three out of four depressed patients have symptoms of insomnia, and that percentage could actually be higher.
Scientists have studied the brainwaves of depressed patients during sleep. They’ve found that a depressed person gets less REM sleep and tends to experience fragmented sleep more frequently than normal. Even after depression goes into full remission, sleep problems can remain, and when they do, this indicates a higher risk of relapse.
Poor Concentration and Memory Problems
Sleeplessness interferes with your memory, and can make concentration difficult. Memory is closely linked with two phases of sleep. REM sleep, which is the phase when dreams occur, is associated with your procedural memory. This is the memory you rely on for your know-how when you are learning a new task. Non-REM sleep is associated with declarative memory. That’s the memory you use when you have to recall an event or a fact. When sleep is disrupted, both types of memory are put at risk.
In addition, difficulty concentrating is linked with both fragmented sleep and insomnia. You may never realize it, though. Although studies show your concentration drops when you go without sleep, they also show that you are likely to rate your concentration higher during these times. This skewed self-perception may also be a consequence of poor sleep.
Feels Like a Cold
Hate to get sick? Better get your zzzs. Sleeping less than 6 hours a night has been shown to put you at greater risk of catching a cold and other illnesses. One study observed 164 healthy men and women over the course of a week. Most of the study participants were given nasal drops infected with rhinovirus, the virus that typically causes the common cold. About 30% wound up infected. Their sleep schedules were carefully monitored. It turned out that short sleepers were 4 times more likely to get sick than their well-rested peers. Another large study showed that women who sleep less than 6 hours per night are more likely to contract pneumonia.
This makes sense when you know how your immune system relies on sleep. Your production of T cells peaks at night while you sleep. T cells hunt down and destroy infections, and also support your body’s immune response in other ways. Other important immune cells are released into your body while you sleep, too, giving you extra protection to fight off disease. When you go without sleep for a prolonged period, your body is less capable of protecting itself from infection.
Paranoia and Hallucinations
Insomnia can bring on hallucinations and paranoia, and so can even mild sleep difficulties, although not as frequently. One survey found that your odds of a hallucinatory experience rise about 4% if you’ve had sleep difficulties over the past month. Those odds jump by about 8% if you suffer from chronic insomnia. These subjects did not suffer from other mental health disorders, although the presence of disorders like anxiety and depression increases the odds further. Another study found that more than half of people suffering from paranoia also experienced some level of insomnia.
Everything Hurts More
Everyone deals with pain from time to time. From joint pain and back aches to migraines and heartburn, pain is something that will appear in your life now and then. But whatever form of pain you find yourself in, it will likely be worse when you miss sleep.
Many studies have looked into the associations between sleep loss and pain. Together they’ve shown that sleep problems can lead to more headaches, higher risks of fibromyalgia and chronic pain, worsening arthritis pain and many other conditions. The association between bad sleep and increased pain is well established, but scientists still don’t know what causes it.
Sleep loss seems to increase inflammation as well, which is often painful. One of the problems is that sleeplessness can lead to obesity, and obesity has been shown to increase inflammation in turn. It’s a nasty cycle that takes work to reverse, but doing so could mean less pain throughout life.
You’re More Impulsive
What does it take to exercise self-control? Things like overspending, gambling, overeating, and addiction can ruin lives. But science isn’t sure how we can get a handle on these kinds of impulses. One theory is that you need a certain amount of energy in order to make better decisions. When you don’t get enough sleep, you don’t have as much energy either. Studies have tied poor sleep to teenage delinquency and other impulsive behaviors.
This could be a particularly difficult problem to control. After all, getting to bed at a reasonable hour is a good choice, and staying up late is often impulsive. So if you’ve already been sleeping poorly, it may be easier to make that type of poor, impulsive choice to stay up late before going to bed the next day.
It’s hard to keep your fine motor skills in tune without enough sleep. One study had doctors perform coordination tests after working a 24-hour call, and found that lack of sleep seriously hampered their ability to complete tasks correctly. Your hand-eye coordination suffers from drowsiness, too. In fact, people who are sleep-deprived do as bad or worse than intoxicated people in some tests.
Does your job rely on picking out visual details? If it does, you should make sure you’re in bed by bedtime. Studies show that you get worse at such tasks when sleep-deprived. Also, some types of sleep deprivation can harm what’s known as your visual working memory—that’s your brain’s ability to store pieces of visual information while at the same time filter out what you don’t need. With this critical piece of the visual puzzle impaired, you may find it more difficult than normal to receive instructions, to solve math problems in your head, and to avoid distraction.
Nodding Off While Driving
Drowsy driving is a serious problem, and the 70 million Americans suffering from a sleep disorder are having a frightening effect on the highway. One out of every 25 adult drivers admits to falling asleep while driving in the past 30 days. That means a lot of people on the road are getting such poor sleep that it is putting their lives, and the lives of those around them, in jeopardy.
Falling asleep at the wheel is of course very dangerous. But just being overly sleepy can be harmful too. It can slow your reaction time to dangerous situations. The national highway administration estimates that 72,000 crashes a year are caused by drowsy drivers, leading to an estimated 800 deaths. Medications that make you sleepy can make this serious problem even worse, so check the labels carefully and avoid driving after taking these prescriptions.
Low Sex Drive
It is possible that the sleep you’re not getting is affecting you in other ways within the bedroom. Your body produces testosterone when you sleep, especially during REM sleep. At the same time, testosterone levels dip while you’re awake. That’s true in both men and women, but men are more likely to suffer from sleep apnea. Sleep apnea has been linked to sexual problems such as erectile dysfunction, impotence, and low libido.
There’s another sleep problem that plays havoc in relationships, and perhaps it’s more familiar: snoring. Yes, it’s the fuel for a lot of jokes, but couples in which one partner snores are statistically less satisfied. Perhaps keeping your loved one from getting enough sleep brings sexual problems of its own.
Sleeplessness makes it harder for you to recognize if someone is happy, sad, or angry. One study had both well-rested and sleep-deprived subjects watch amusing and sad video clips. The sleep deprived group found the amusing clips less amusing, and the sad clips less sad. A different study asked another group of sleepy subjects and well-rested ones to recognize the emotions on photographed faces. Specifically the drowsy group found it harder to read the faces of happy and angry people, suggesting our ability to share the joy of others and to react to potentially threatening situations is hampered by inadequate rest.
Getting Back to Sleep
You’ve seen just how harmful to your health going without sleep can be. But for millions of people, getting enough sleep is frustratingly difficult. There are ways to get the recommended 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night, though, if you’re willing to put in some effort.
- Make a sleep schedule and keep to it. That means going to bed and waking up at the same time every night—yes, even on weekends.
- Create a good sleeping environment inside your bedroom. People sleep best when the room is dark, quiet, and cool. If ambient light is getting through your windows, the right curtains or tape can shut it out.
- Avoid naps, and particularly afternoon naps. These can further disrupt your sleep cycle and make it tough to fall asleep at bedtime.
- Staying active can help prepare your body to sleep. Intense workouts are best, but any additional activity helps.
- Make sure your mattress and pillow are comfortable. Pick a pillow that matches your own sleeping style.
- Get into a bedtime ritual. Doing the exact same things before you turn out the lights can remind your body that it’s time to go to bed.