Misconceptions about Sleep


Myth - You need less sleep as you get older.

Reality – People tend to sleep less as they age, but this is often because of insomnia or other sleep disorders.  Seniors lose the ability to respond to external circadian cues, the ease of going into a deep sleep, and the tendency to stay asleep for the whole night. The optimal amount of sleep does not change much, if at all.


Myth - You need a certain amount of sleep every night.  If you run short, you accumulate a sleep debt.  Over time this debt can run to hundreds of hours.

Reality – The existence is sleep debt is of some dispute, but even those who think there is such a thing don’t think it ever accumulates to more than a few hours.


Myth - People sleep late on weekends to make up for lost sleep during the work week.

Reality – This is true to some extent, but people also sleep late on weekends (and take afternoon naps on weekends) because they have the opportunity to do so and because sleeping is fun.


Myth - Staying up an extra hour won’t make a difference

Reality – Even a one hour reduction in sleep duration affects performance on the job and can contribute to drowsy driving and a cranky mood.


Myth - Sleep is for resting

Reality – Resting is a major benefit of sleep and a function it facilitates.  But you can rest your body while awake by lying on the couch and watching television.  During sleep your body goes into a slightly deeper rest, but it is not that much different.  Other things happen in sleep that do not occur during waking rest periods.

The brain is the organ that undergoes the most change during sleep. Memory consolidation, resting of the brain (which does not happen during waking lying on the couch), and regeneration of body tissue (a joint project of the brain and the rest of the body) happen overnight. Sleep is an active process, not just downtime.


Myth - Insomnia is when I can’t get to sleep or when I wake up in the middle of the night.  I need to take intervention when I have insomnia.

Reality – You should take steps to combat or mitigate insomnia, but you have to be careful to establish that you have insomnia.  The hallmark symptom is not laying awake in bed, but daytime sleepiness and overall impairment from a lack of sufficient sleep.  Some people can get by fine with less sleep, and if they try to get 8 hours will invariably spend time awake in bed.  If you don’t feel sleepy or tired during the day, you probably don’t have insomnia.

Now, there are other sleep disorders that cause excessive daytime sleepiness, too, so your nighttime sleep pattern is part of the diagnosis.


Myth - I run a hectic schedule during the week, but make up for any lost sleep on weekends.

Reality – This works only to a limited extent.  You can be well rested at the conclusion of the weekend, but running short of sleep during the week will have an effect on your daytime performance.


Myth - Snoring is funny and irritating but not a serious problem.

Reality – Snoring itself isn’t bad, but it can be a sign for apnea, which is potentially serious.


Myth - Sleeping pills are dangerous and should be avoided.

RealityModern sleeping pills are not nearly as dangerous as the barbiturates from the mid 20th Century, although all drugs should be treated with caution.  Under a doctor’s care, sleep medication can be an invaluable technology that helps people manage insomnia. Medication modifies sleep architecture so should be used only if necessary and for a limited time.


See also: partial myths about sleep.

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