When you barely have enough time to sleep as it is, the last thing you want to do is spend your waking hours deciphering which sleep tips are actually worth following. What you don’t know may keep you awake all night. In honor of Better Sleep Month, we’ve debunked the ten biggest sleep myths to help you make the most of your time in bed.
1. You can catch up on sleep over the weekend.
We get it. You stayed up late this week clocking a few extra hours at the office. Or — if you’re anything like us — you spent the past five nights binge-watching Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt on Netflix. By Friday, you’re no stranger to sleep debt. But snoozing in late over the weekend won’t do the trick.
It’s a common misconception that you can just catch up on the hours you missed during the week by sleeping in Saturday. Recent research has shown that while one long night of sleep can restore your performance back to normal levels, it may only last 6 hours after waking up. As the day goes on, your reaction times clock in 10 times slower than what they when you woke up.
2. To cure drowsy driving, just roll down the window and turn up the beats.
Sleep-related driving accidents are an enormous problem around the world. In 2005, one survey found that 60% of Americans have driven while feeling drowsy. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 100,000 police-reported accidents are directly caused by driver fatigue.
When you first got behind the wheel in your teens, it probably seemed instinctual to roll down your windows and turn up the radio. While neither have been proven to help drowsy drivers, scientists have found that a blast of cold air on your face will provide temporary relief from sleepiness. So crank up the A/C — and to get an even longer boost, stop by Starbucks for a Venti or pull over in a deserted parking lot for a nap.
3. Yawning is your body’s way of saying you have 10% battery remaining.
Yawning is typically thought of as an indicator of tiredness. The truth is, the cause of yawning remains a mystery even after continued scientific scrutiny. The most recent experiment has suggested that yawning may be an attempt to cool the brain down. This might also make us more alert by waking us up when we are bored and distracted.
Contagious yawns are also a mystery. Studies have shown that yawning can trigger off a contagious response in up to 60% of people who are exposed. It even affects dogs! Some scientists have proposed a theory that contagious yawning may have helped our ancestors coordinate times of activity and rest. With the same routine, a group can then work together more efficiently throughout the day.
4. Your body can adjust to an irregular sleep schedule.
If you work a job that requires you to be awake when the rest of us have already been asleep for 3 hours, your body will never fully adjust. Yes, your internal clock is affected by artificial light (that’s why reading on your iPad before bed can keep you awake), but it’s really set in place by natural light. During the hours of darkness, our bodies produce the sleep hormone melatonin — whether you’re asleep during that time or not. Even if it feels like you’ve adjusted to a new sleep schedule, the quality of sleep will never quite be what it should.
5. The earlier you get under the covers, the faster you’ll be able to fall asleep.
If you have trouble falling asleep at night and end up nodding off later than you intended, getting into bed earlier won’t help. Your body knows when it’s tired, just as it knows when it’s hungry. (Late-night snack, anyone?)
You may think hopping into bed earlier will put you to sleep sooner, but you could just end up tossing and turning. Anxiety about insomnia is real, and the stress may be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you’re up and kicking, maybe you should head to the kitchen for a late-night snack after all.
6. No sweat before sleep.
Fishing for an excuse to skip the gym everyday this week? Unfortunately, you’ll have to look elsewhere. Doctors used to advise against working out right before bed under the assumption that the boost in adrenaline and heart rate would keep you awake, but recent research proves otherwise.
Earlier this year, the National Sleep Foundation found that those who report exercising close to bedtime don’t usually experience any differences in sleep quality compared with those who exercise earlier in the day. In a striking reversal, the National Sleep Foundation deleted the “no sweat before sleep” rule from its sleep recommendations. There’s even evidence that light exercise – walking, yoga, Pilates, etc — before bed can help you sleep. The activity makes you feel slightly warm, and if you then go into a chilled bedroom, the drop in body temp will knock you right you out.
7. Counting sheep will put you to sleep.
Keeping track of all those sheep is too much work and can be stressful. The last thing you want to do with your head on the pillow is activate the parts of the brain that are associated with processing information. So tonight, leave the sheep at the farm where they belong. Instead, dream about something relaxing, like where you want to go on your next vacation. The restful sounds of waves and smell of the sand may help you fall asleep faster.
8. It’s fine to drink coffee before bed.
How many times have you heard your friends brag about how much coffee they can drink and then go straight to sleep? That may be true, but they are not immune to the side effects of caffeine.
Caffeine is a stimulant that has been proven to affect everyone. Even those who claim to be the resistant would show an increase in mental activity high enough to disrupt sleep if their brain waves were measured with an EEG. Most people who think they can drink coffee right before bed are probably so exhausted and sleep-deprived that they’re still able to pass out despite the extra stimulation. If they skipped the extra cup, they’d probably enjoy an even more restful night sleep.
9. Late night snacking is bad for your rest.
For all of you late-night snackers that use the glow of the refrigerator as a night light — good news! You can absolutely nosh after hours and feel no shame. A small, carbohydrate-heavy snack with a bit of protein an hour or two before bed triggers the brain to start producing serotonin, a calming neurotransmitter. No need to go to bed dreaming of a bacon, egg, and cheese. Although you still can. We won’t judge you.
10. You need 8 straight hours of sleep.
In recent years, segmented sleep has been the subject of a growing body of research. Historians have long argued that humans have predominantly taken their sleep in two distinct chunks at night, separated by a period of wakefulness. Many scholars consider a segmented, or bi-modal sleep to be the natural pattern of human sleep, backed up by historical evidence spanning hundreds of years. Medieval literature repeatedly mentions ‘first’ and ‘second’ sleep, and it is thought that even Homer, in Ancient Greek times made a reference to first sleep.
Historical research has also been complemented by scientific data. A landmark study in the 1990’s found that when subjects were placed in an environment with no artificial lighting, they naturally fell into a pattern of sleep that consisted of two distinct phases.