Sleep, glorious sleep. Not only does it give our bodies the rest they deserve, it’s also the key to our ability to function at work and play. But when it comes to getting those Zzzs, there are so many opinions it’s hard to know what really helps and what doesn’t. Here we debunk some of the biggest sleeping myths…
1. You need eight hours
When it comes to how much sleep we should be getting, most of us try to abide by the eight-hour rule. But it turns out that the right amount of sleep is different for everyone. While children usually need around nine hours, the elderly require around seven. Fluctuations in various hormones can alter the amount of sleep you require. And some people are just genetically programmed to need less sleep than others.
2. Eating before sleep is bad
We all know that the body struggles to do its job if you hit the hay after eating a large meal, but that doesn’t mean you can’t eat anything before going to bed. Bananas are a brilliant natural source of magnesium and potassium, which are natural muscle relaxants. They also contain the amino acid L-tryptophan, which the brain converts into the feel-good chemical serotonin and the sleep hormone melatonin.
3. Napping is good
Some say that a power nap can energize you, but it’s possible that napping willy-nilly can be troublesome for your body. Not only do short snoozes reduce your ability to get a good night’s rest, some studies show they can also trigger inflammation in the body, which has considerable health implications over time.
4. Being warm makes for a good sleep
Cozying up in a pair of pajamas might make you feel sleepy but beware of overheating, which can actually result in disrupted sleep. “Keeping a cool body temperature improves your sleep and allows melatonin, responsible for anti-aging and good sleep, to do its job,” says sleep expert Sammy Margo. “The optimum body temperature is around 18-22C.” Having a bath, then allowing your body to cool right down, can be a good way to trigger restful sleep.
5. The best time to go to bed is when you’re tired
If you’re exhausted, it’s likely that you’ll fall asleep easily. But going to bed at the same time every night is important for your quality of sleep. Research shows that following a routine is self-reinforcing and helps you fall asleep faster. If you’re prone to losing track of time, use an alarm clock to tell you when to hit the sack.
6. Eating cheese gives you nightmares
Many of us avoid dairy foods before bedtime, but a study has found that only six out of 156 people who consumed cheese before sleeping had scary dreams. The idea originated in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, where Scrooge believes his cheese snack causes the ghostly visitations.
7. When you sleep, so does your brain
We might know it as “nodding off” but when we fall asleep, our brain is actually still working hard. Like our bodies, it does recharge, but it still controls body functions such as breathing and temperature. It also does things it can’t do when we’re awake, like regenerate tissue, build bones and strengthen immunity.
8. Making up for lost sleep works
If you’ve had a hectic week with little sleep, spending extra hours in bed to pay off your “sleep debt” seems tempting. But sleeping in until noon lessens the chance of you falling asleep at your usual bedtime, setting up a new, unbalanced sleep cycle for the week to come. And remember that morning exercise is one of the best ways of improving your sleep quality.
9. Counting sheep sends you to sleep
Going against what you might’ve been told as a child, counting sheep, or anything for that matter, can actually delay sleep. It isn’t effective at preventing passing thoughts or blocking out disruptions that keep us awake. A study found that participants who visualized a relaxing scene instead fell asleep 20 minutes sooner than those who were counting.
10. Alcohol will help you sleep better
Drinking a glass of wine makes us feel sleepy simply because alcohol has a natural sedative effect. “You imagine it’ll make for a good sleep,” Sammy Margo says, “but actually drinking alcohol before bed prevents you getting to a deep stage of sleep.” Your body metabolizes alcohol during the night, which means sleep gets progressively lighter and you’re more likely to wake up.