8 Common Sleep Myths That Might Be Harming Your Health

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A new study looked at the 20 most common sleep assumptions and then worked to prove or debunk them.

"Sleep is one of the most important things we can all do at night to improve our health, our mood, our well-being, and our longevity," says Rebecca Robbins, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Population Health at NYU Langone Health.

Which is kind of profound in its simplicity. While so many people are taking supplements and seeking all kinds of magic bullets for good health, one of the most obvious paths is a good night's sleep. Alas, if only it were so easy – insomnia vexes the best of us. According to the CDC, more than 35 percent of Americans get less than seven hours of sleep per night.

With this in mind, Robbins and other researchers from the NYU School of Medicine looked at more than 8,000 websites to suss out the 20 most common assumptions about sleep. Then, with a team of sleep medicine experts, they evaluated and ranked them based on whether each one could be debunked, or backed up by science. Here are some of the most common misconceptions that they addressed.

1. Adults need five hours or less of sleep

Robbins says that this is a very common misconception, and was among the top myths they were able to dispel based on scientific research. Extensive evidence shows that consistently getting five hours of sleep or less greatly increases risk of adverse health consequence, like that of cardiovascular disease and early mortality. They say this myth poses the most serious risk to health from long-term sleep deficits.

2. Drinking alcohol before bed will help you sleep

There's a reason why there is something called a nightcap; many people think a drink before bed will help them have a good night's sleep. Robbins says, nope – it's a myth. A drink before bed may help someone fall asleep, but it dramatically affects quality of sleep. It pulls a sleeper out of REM and deeper sleep. You may still spend time sleeping, but you won’t be fully restored.

3. Watching television in bed helps you relax before sleep

A lot of people fall asleep in front of a tv in the bedroom, but watching television is not an optimal way to relax. Nightly news and other programming can lead to stress when we're trying to power down and can lead to insomnia, says Robbins. These devices also emit bright blue light, which tells our brain to perk up, not sleep. Avoid blue light from tv and phones and instead do things that relax you.

4. It’s best to stay in bed and try to sleep

Many people think that if they’re having trouble falling asleep, it’s best to stay in bed and try. Unfortunately, if we stay in bed and keep trying unsuccessfully, we eventually associate our bed with insomnia. It should take about 15 minutes to fall asleep. If you’re waiting longer than that, get out of bed and change the environment – Robbins likens staying in bed wide awake to going to the gym and just standing on the treadmill. Instead, get up, do something mindless, like folding socks, and keep the lights low. Only return to bed when you feel tired.

5. Snoring is harmless

Another common myth suggests that snoring is harmless. Robbins says snoring can be harmless, but it can also be a sign of sleep apnea, a potentially serious sleep disorder. The researchers encourage patients not to ignore loud snoring. Instead, see a doctor to rule out sleep apnea since it may lead to heart stoppages or other illnesses.

6. Hitting the snooze button is better than getting up right away

Curses. We are supposed to resist the lure of the snooze button? The researchers say yes. Most of us will be groggy from inertia when the alarm goes off, says Robbins, but forego the snooze button. Your body may go back to sleep, but it will be very light, low-quality sleep. Robbins suggests getting up and getting outside into the blue light of the day as quickly as possible.

7. Your brain and body can learn to function just as well with less sleep

The experts say that when sleep is decreased, self-reported levels of sleepiness increase for the first several days before starting to plateau; but reduced sleep leads to sustained drops in performance. The study notes, "Further, nightshift workers, who habitually sleep fewer hours than day workers, face higher morbidity due to breast cancer and all-cause mortality than day workers." So while people may be able to “adjust” to less sleep and/or "circadian misalignment," they do so at the risk of serious health consequences.

8. Sleeping in on weekends is a bad idea

For this one, the jury is out – the researchers admit that some myths still cause disagreement among sleep experts, and this is one of them. "Although sleeping in on weekends does disrupt the natural circadian rhythm, for people in certain professions, such as shift workers, it may be better for them to sleep in than to get fewer hours of sleep overall."

In the end, sleep is an important avenue for overall good health – and achieving it through good sleep habits is the way to go. Americans are expected to spend $52 billion on sleeping aids and remedies by 2020, but there are so many drawbacks to that approach that it seems prudent to start by debunking the myths and getting correct information out there.

"Sleep is important to health, and there needs to be greater effort to inform the public regarding this important public health issue," says study senior investigator Girardin Jean Louis, PhD. "For example, by discussing sleep habits with their patients, doctors can help prevent sleep myths from increasing risks for heart disease, obesity, and diabetes."

Robbins and her colleagues suggest creating a consistent sleep schedule and aiming for at least seven hours of sleep. I don't know about you, but it looks like I will be folding some socks in the dark for a while.

The research was published online online in Sleep Health.