Across the internet there’s a sea of advice out there when it comes to sleep. You’ve probably come across all sorts of tips that are meant to help you drift off. As you might expect from the internet, most of these tips are not that helpful or backed by much science.
Whether it’s through the internet or word of mouth, there are many sleep myths and misconceptions that we may inadvertently find ourselves believing. Sometimes this is harmless, but other times it can actually be detrimental to our sleep and wellbeing. It can be confusing to sort through all the conflicting information, so in this article, I’ll be debunking some of the most common sleep myths.
Myth 1: Insomnia is permanent
If you’re struggling with sleep and think the problem is never going to go away, it’s never as bad as it might seem. It’s natural to get worried about how long insomnia may last for, which is one of the reasons it tends to stick around, but know that it won’t last forever.
Some people mistakenly believe that being an “insomniac” is a lifelong condition. However, this is almost always incorrect. Whilst there’s no guarantee how long insomnia will last for, your natural ability to sleep well is always there. Your sleep will eventually get back to normal, especially if you take the right steps to get help with the issue.
Insomnia isn’t a disease where something has permanently physically changed in your body or brain to prevent you from sleeping normally. Instead, it’s often caused by anxiety, worry, stress, bad habits and hyperarousal at night, all of which interfere with sleep. These are ultimately just thoughts and feelings, which despite how bad they might feel at the time, will pass eventually.
There are some people who struggle with insomnia for a long time, but even then it’s still a temporary problem, never permanent, and can always be helped. With the right approach, the feelings of desperation and fear will pass, and you won’t be stuck with sleepless nights forever.
Myth 2: Insomnia will make you ill
Being chronically sleep deprived can increase your risk of developing serious diseases. These facts are often discussed in the media and can fill insomniacs with fear, making their sleep issues even worse. Whilst it’s normal to feel worried if you’re having trouble sleeping, fearing how this lack of sleep might impact your future health, it’s important to know that these health risks relate to those who’ve experienced severe sleep deprivation for many years. If you’ve only been suffering from insomnia for a few weeks, months, or even a few years, these risks don’t necessarily apply to you.
Short-term sleep deprivation does make you feel bad during the day, but it doesn’t mean you’ll increase your risk of developing serious health conditions like Alzheimer’s or heart disease. The human body is much more resilient than we sometimes might think. There are also so many other risk factors at play when it comes to these diseases.
As odd as this might sound, sleep deprivation and insomnia should not be considered as the same thing. You can suffer from sleep deprivation for many reasons without suffering from insomnia.
If you’ve been dealing with insomnia for decades and are concerned about your health, I fully appreciate your concern. Firstly, acceptance is key here. Realise that you can’t change the past, but you can take action to address the issue moving forward. By focusing on accepting what has happened, even though this might be difficult, this helps you to move on from insomnia, sleep better going forward and to focus on what you really value in life. Therapies, like Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for insomnia (ACT), can help with this.
Secondly the effect that insomnia has on your health is likely to be considerably less than you think it will be. As humans we all have an inherent negativity bias and can often find ourselves believing the worst will happen, especially when it comes to our health. However, sleep is just one part of your overall health and not everything. People suffering from insomnia are typically, yet understandably, somewhat fixated by how sleep, or a lack of it, affects their health and wellbeing. This means they have a tendency to overthink how much sleep affects them.
Myth 3: Sleeping pills are bad
Difficulty sleeping, especially chronic insomnia, can really negatively affect quality of life and cause a great deal of suffering. We all want to be the best version of ourselves during the day, whether we’re parents, coworkers, students, or friends, and suffering from insomnia can make this much harder. Therefore when insomnia creeps in, instinctively we may turn to sleeping pills in an attempt to alleviate that suffering.
You might have heard some scary things about sleeping pills, such as their bad side effects or their risks of addiction and becoming dependent on them. But it’s not always as bad as it sounds and these scare stories are often exaggerated. Different kinds of sleeping pills work in different ways, and the risks aren’t the same for everyone.
I’m not a doctor, so I won’t tell you about specific pills. But what I can say is that it’s completely normal to think about using them if you’re struggling to sleep. There’s no shame in looking for a quick fix to a sleep problem. When you’re suffering it’s human nature to want to quickly alleviate that suffering, which on the surface sleeping pills seem to offer for insomnia. It doesn’t mean that you’re weak or that there’s something wrong with your sleep if you decide to take them.
That being said, it’s good to understand and be clearer on why you’re thinking about taking sleeping pills. It may be because you know that sleeping pills could give you some short term relief with sleep and therefore help you to cope better with other areas of life the next day. It could also be because you want to be your best and in good form for the people you care about and getting some sleep might help you to do that. Like any human being, you’re only trying to do the best for yourself and others. Therefore cultivating some self-compassion for insomnia for yourself in this situation can be a game changer.
Most of the time, taking sleeping pills every now and then isn’t going to negatively affect your life or get you hooked, but they’re not typically a long-term answer to insomnia. In fact it’s crucial to be aware that sleeping pills are usually just a temporary solution. Instead, there are therapies like ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) that can really help with insomnia in the long run and help you sleep without needing to rely on pills going forward.
Myth 4: Some people are naturally bad sleepers
Many worry about and think of themselves as being inherently bad sleepers, often having thoughts like, “I’m just not a good sleeper,” or “I must’ve gotten bad sleep habits from my parents.” Some understandably feel this way after having struggled with sleep for such a long time. However, believing that you’re naturally a bad sleeper is a mistake. No one is doomed to sleep poorly.
As humans we’re all biologically designed to sleep well, but we’re also quite prone to getting stressed, worried and anxious, which negatively affects sleep. Insomniacs never lose the ability to sleep well, but get into a bad cycle of difficult thoughts and feelings around sleep, leading to subsequent maladaptive behaviours that perpetuate bad sleep. Inadvertently and understandably over time this can make some buy into believing they are a bad sleeper.
Furthermore we all sleep slightly differently. Some of us might sleep a bit more lightly than others, or wake up a bit more during the night, but that doesn’t make someone a ‘bad sleeper.’ It doesn’t mean that their sleep quality will be any worse or that they’ll wake up feeling any less refreshed. We all have our own unique ways of sleeping and comparisons with others are unhelpful.
Sometimes it’s the words we use to describe ourselves and the labels we give ourselves that often add to the problem. Let’s say you think of yourself as an ‘insomniac’ because you’ve been sleeping badly for a long time. The issue is that the label sticks in your mind and might cause you to overly identify with it, making insomnia even more of a problem. The reality is any period of poor sleep will likely pass. You’re not an ‘insomniac,’ no one is. You, like everyone else, are just going through a temporary rough patch with sleep.
Labelling ourselves as either ‘bad sleepers’ or ‘insomniacs’ is a natural thing to do. Humans inherently like things to be labelled, as it helps our minds try to make sense of things. But no one’s born a naturally bad sleeper or permanently becomes one. Instead, it’s about recognising that we aren’t any of the labels we may give ourselves and sleep troubles are nearly always temporary.
Myth 5: You must follow good ‘sleep hygiene’
If you search for ways to sleep better or combat insomnia, you’ll find numerous articles suggesting ‘sleep hygiene’ tips. These come from reputable sources and typically include recommendations such as:
- Cut down on caffeine and alcohol.
- Exercise regularly but avoid it close to bedtime.
- Have a relaxation routine before bed.
- Dim lights and avoid screens before bed.
- Avoid eating just before bedtime.
- Keep regular bedtimes and wake up times.
- Sleep in a cool, dark room.
While these tips are supported by science to be helpful for sleep, they aren’t actually that big of a deal. Consider this: you can probably think of many people who sleep soundly without following any of these tips, and there’s probably been times before when you’ve slept well without adhering to them either.
I’m not suggesting that sleep hygiene advice is nonsense, unimportant and that you should completely ignore it. But recognise from others and maybe even from your own personal history that following sleep hygiene advice isn’t as crucial a factor for quality sleep as we might think. Strict adherence to them is not essential to sleep well. Furthermore, following them too strictly can also end up restricting your life, as it could stop you from doing things you value in the evenings.
Moreover, relying on ‘sleep hygiene’ to help insomnia is unlikely to help and can also make it worse. Some people try these practices expecting improvements to their sleep, but when they don’t see immediate results, it can make them feel more anxious and frustrated, further worsening their sleep.
Myth 6: Sleep gets worse with age
Getting older means many things change, including sleep patterns. But does sleep get worse as we age? Not necessarily.
Think of your sleep pattern as a daily schedule. As you get older, this schedule might shift a bit earlier. You might feel like going to bed earlier in the evening, find yourself waking up earlier in the morning and waking up more often during the night, perhaps needing the bathroom more. This isn’t necessarily bad or worse sleep; it’s just different from when you were younger.
The problem begins when people still want to sleep like they did in their younger years, but find they can’t. They may get stressed or anxious when they can’t sleep in until eight in the morning or find they wake up too often or earlier than expected. It’s essential to realise that these changes are normal and not usually something to worry about.
For example, some older individuals might still expect or want to sleep for eight hours, as they did when they were 30. But often older people actually need less sleep than they used to, perhaps only needing six and a half hours or so to feel okay. However, if they aren’t getting eight hours, and think they should be, they might then worry they aren’t sleeping enough. But in actual fact they are.
Specific issues, such as diseases like Alzheimer’s or taking certain medications, might cause bad sleep. But outside of these sorts of factors, the changes older people experience with sleep are usually natural and just require adapting to a new sleep pattern.
While the changes older people experience with their sleep can be unsettling, learning to accept them and not struggle with them can reduce stress and make it less bothersome. It’s the worrying about these changes that often causes more harm to sleep than the changes themselves.
But remember, truly poor sleep, like insomnia, isn’t something to ignore. If sleep problems become severe and are negatively affecting your quality of life, don’t hesitate to seek help. It’s all part of taking care of yourself, no matter your age.
Myth 7: You need 8 hours of sleep
Adults don’t necessarily need as much as eight hours of sleep, despite what’s often said in the media. The amount of sleep required varies from person to person, much like shoe sizes. Typically, adults need between seven to nine hours of sleep, but this is an average and some might be fine on just six and a half hours. Secondly, bear in mind how much you sleep from night to night can vary and it’s both okay and normal to sleep a bit less on some nights.
What’s important is gauging how you feel by mid-morning after you’ve had enough time to fully wake up. If you’re feeling somewhat refreshed and not sleepy, then you’re probably getting enough sleep. But try not to over analyse this and go with your gut feeling about whether you feel okay or not. Remember, feeling “tired” is different from feeling “sleepy,” as you can feel tired for various reasons, not just from a lack of quality sleep.
Good sleep also doesn’t mean that you won’t wake up during the night. We sleep in roughly ninety-minute cycles and so it’s normal to wake up a couple of times during the night, especially in the second half of it. So if you find yourself waking up earlier than you’d like, don’t assume your sleep is done for the night. Staying in bed resting for a bit longer will likely mean you drift back to sleep.
Myth 8: Stick to a strict sleep routine
Many people have heard advice like “go to bed at the same time each night,” “wake up at the same time every morning,” and “don’t sleep in on weekends.” While this advice is usually given with good intentions and is backed by scientific research to promote better sleep, it doesn’t mean that you have to strictly follow these guidelines. Following them too closely might even harm your sleep.
We need to understand that our bodies are more flexible than we realise. It’s okay to go to bed or wake up an hour or two later than usual. Our bodies operate on circadian rhythms, which control our sleep-wake cycles, but these are not rigid or set in stone. There’s room for flexibility.
Imagine how restrictive life would be if you went to bed at the exact same time every night; you’d miss out on so much of life. While consistent sleep habits can be healthy, being too rigid around them can be problematic and constrain your life by stopping you from doing other more valuable activities. It’s also healthy to enjoy sleeping in sometimes, so don’t force yourself to wake up earlier than necessary.
Another common misunderstanding involves chronotypes, or the idea that people are either “owls” who go to bed late, or “larks” who go to bed early. Although these preferences are a real part of our biology, the differences aren’t as significant or rigid as people often believe.
For example, if someone identifies as an “owl” and likes to go to bed at midnight, they might still be fine going to bed earlier. Conversely, a person who identifies as a “lark” and ideally sleeps at 10 p.m. could likely go to bed later and still sleep well. Chronotypes are more flexible than people often think. The anxiety or stress about changing our bed and sleep times for just a night or so may affect our sleep more than the actual changes in timings do themselves.
Myth 9: Get out of bed if you can’t sleep
People who have trouble sleeping often receive the advice to leave their bed if they can’t fall asleep within 20-30 minutes. They are told to go to another room and do something calming, like reading a relaxing novel, meditating, or stretching in dim light. Then once they feel sleepy, they should return to bed and try again.
This advice is based on a principle called ‘stimulus control.’ It stems from the idea that lying in bed anxious and unable to sleep is bad in the long run, as it conditions someone to associate the bed with anxiety and not being relaxed enough to sleep, perhaps making the sleep problem worse. Some studies support this approach, and it has helped some people. However, it doesn’t work for everyone, and for some, it may even worsen their sleep.
An alternative perspective to consider is that getting out of bed when struggling to sleep might be sending the message to the brain that being awake in bed is bad, a problem, unbearable and something to escape from. In reality, it’s normal and fine to be awake in bed and just resting. Good sleepers often experience periods of wakefulness, happily lying in bed awake at the start or in the middle of the night, without considering it a problem. It’s when we start labelling lying in bed awake as ‘bad’ that problems arise.
Secondly, some may find themselves getting bored or fed up of lying wide awake in the early hours of the morning. So instead they get up earlier than they wanted to and may start work or go to the gym early. However, all they’re doing here is both missing out on an important chance to rest and reinforcing that being awake in bed is bad.
So instead of leaving the bed too early or in the middle of the night, remain in it and appreciate just resting and accept being awake. Recognise that your bed is likely comfortable and a nice place to be, that you’re actually okay and safe, and lying awake is not as bad as it might seem.
Myth 10: Natural remedies help sleep
You may have seen things in the media promoting the following to help sleep:
Foods or supplements rich in tryptophan, magnesium, and zinc.
Herbal extracts containing CBD, valerian root extract and 5-HTP.
Drinks like cherry juice, warm milk and herbal teas.
Pillow sprays that usually contain lavender oil.
However, there’s very limited evidence to suggest that any of these significantly help with sleep and no evidence they help insomnia. What’s happened is companies have cottoned on to bad sleep being a common ‘pain point’ of the consumer and tried to make money out of this.
Human beings are wired to want quick fixes for problems and these products are advertised to offer that for your sleep. The same can be said for the mattress and bedding industry, promising quality sleep if you just buy the perfect bed. However, the benefits these products offer for sleep nearly always fall short of expectations.
If you lack key minerals in your diet, it’s unhealthy, and there is some scientific evidence that some deficiencies may slightly affect sleep quality. But the effects are minor and wouldn’t cause insomnia. Secondly by maintaining a relatively healthy diet, it’s unlikely you’d be deficient in these minerals anyway.
While some believe in the sleep-promoting powers of these supplements, they’re more likely to just offer a placebo effect than a real solution. It’s understandable why you would want to try using supplements for sleep problems, sleep deprivation is horrible and we’ll naturally try anything to alleviate this suffering. If you believe they work, then by all means, but remember that most people who sleep well, including yourself in the past, probably don’t need any supplements for a good night’s sleep.
Myth 11: Tracking your sleep is helpful
Many people wear electronic devices on their wrists to track their sleep patterns at night. These devices provide information about the total quantity of sleep, quality of sleep, recovery, and the time spent in different sleep stages. However, except for a rare case, these devices aren’t beneficial for sleep and can even worsen it.
Firstly, the information they give about the time spent in different sleep stages is inaccurate. Accurate measurement of these stages requires a proper sleep study (polysomnography), including an EEG (electroencephalogram), which measures brain activity by attaching to the head. Wrist-worn devices can’t detect this kind of activity.
Secondly, the data they give about sleep duration can be inaccurate and more importantly anxiety and stress inducing. If you’ve slept well, you’re generally aware of this, so knowing the exact hours is unnecessary. Equally the device might contradict your original perception, suggesting you’ve slept less than you thought you had, making you possibly unnecessarily annoyed, disappointed or anxious about your sleep.
If you’ve slept poorly, you’ll generally know that too. Knowing the exact lack of sleep you’ve had from a sleep tracker only rubs this in and could likely increase your anxiety and worry about sleeping badly. Having a sleep tracker telling you that you’ve not recovered properly can also put pressure on you to sleep better the following night, which is never helpful.
These devices encourage over-analysis of sleep, which can exacerbate sleep problems due to increased anxiety about not getting enough quality sleep. My personal view is that sleep trackers can actively contribute to insomnia symptoms and are definitely something to ditch. I’m not alone in this thinking and there’s now even a new medical term called orthsomnia, which means the unhealthy preoccupation with sleep tracker data.
The only rare exception for when trackers can be helpful might be for those experiencing ‘paradoxical insomnia’. This is when someone thinks they’re a terrible sleeper, when they’re not and are sleeping okay. Using a sleep tracker could help them realise that they are actually getting more sleep than they believed.