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World Sleep Day: 10 Myths Debunked by an Expert

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Sacred to wake a sleepwalker? Are you concerned that your love of cheese is causing you nightmares? In the following, Dr Hana Patel, a resident sleep expert at Time4Sleep, debunks 10 of the most common sleep myths to help you better understand what’s best for your body.

1. You can “catch up” on lost sleep

Dr Patel explains: “Research has shown that we do not need to repay lost sleep on an hour-for-hour basis. The best evidence we have from studies of sleep deprivation suggests that we only need to make up less than a third of our lost hours, as the sleep we get on recovery nights may be deeper and more restorative. It is also important to note that when we start to chase sleep, we can get stuck in unhelpful cycles of anxiety and daily changes in when we fall asleep and wake up, which can allow sleep problems to continue.

“Rather than trying to catch up on sleep, it is better to focus your efforts on sticking to consistent sleep and wake up times each day.”

2. You need less sleep as you age

Dr Patel mentions: “It is a common misconception that as we get older, we need less sleep. In fact, older people may simply have more difficulty getting the sleep they need. This can happen for several reasons, including the fact that our body clocks can change with age, meaning we are more likely to wake up early.

“Furthermore, research has shown that the quality of sleep we get also changes as we get older, meaning that less time may be spent in deep stages of sleep, which may increase the frequency of nighttime waking. Health conditions that cause bodily discomfort can also contribute to this, making it difficult for older people to sleep through the night.”

3. Loud snoring is normal

Dr Patel advises: “Snoring is very common and is not usually caused by anything serious; however, loud snoring broken up by pauses in breathing and loud snorts or gasps can be a sign of complications such as sleep apnoea, which can limit oxygen flow to the body.

“If you suspect you or your partner may be suffering from sleep apnea or have noticed changes in their breathing at night, contact your primary healthcare provider to discuss your next steps. Some patients are able to reduce their sleep apnea using ‘positive airway pressure’ (PAP) devices designed to keep breathing airways open. Other options, such as specialised mouthpieces or breathing exercises, may also be suitable.”

4. Alcohol before bed can help you sleep

Dr Patel says: “Regular drinking before bed can affect the quality of your sleep, making you feel tired and sluggish. This is because drinking disrupts your sleep cycle, suppressing the onset of REM sleep. Alcohol is also a diuretic, meaning you may wake up to use the bathroom more frequently during the night. Some people may find alcohol helps them get to sleep initially as it has a sedative effect, but this is outweighed by the negative effect on sleep quality through the night.

“In order to allow your body enough time to metabolise the alcohol before you sleep, it is recommended to avoid drinking at least four hours before you go to bed. If you do plan to have a drink later in the evening, try to keep your alcohol intake as low as possible to avoid large amounts of sleep disruption.”

5. You can never sleep too much

Dr Patel comments: “Research shows that both sleeping too much and sleeping too little can raise the risk of diseases such as coronary heart disease, diabetes, anxiety, and obesity in adults aged 45 and older. If you find yourself feeling tired during the day despite sleeping 10 hours or more per night, you might be at risk of hypersomnia. Consider contacting your GP for further advice.

“It is recommended for adults to sleep between seven and nine hours per night, whereas school-age children need between 9 and 11. Women also typically need more sleep than men and are more likely to experience conditions that may disrupt sleep, such as insomnia, anxiety, or depression.”

6. If you have difficulty falling asleep, you should stay in bed

Dr. Patel recommends: “While it may seem counter-productive, staying in bed when you can’t get to sleep is not recommended as it can allow you to associate your bed with wakefulness and stimulation. If you find yourself having difficulty getting to sleep, try getting out of bed and doing something relaxing, such as reading a book, meditating, or listening to calming music.

“Stressing too much about not being able to sleep can make the problem even worse, as it raises levels of adrenaline and keeps the brain stimulated. This is why focusing your attention on something other than trying to sleep is often the best course of action.”

7. Long naps will help you feel more refreshed

Dr. Patel explains: “Researchers say a 20-minute nap is the best length. A short nap like this allows your mind and body to rest without entering the deeper stages of sleep. If you have time and think you need a longer nap, napping for 60 to 90 minutes is enough time to have deep, slow-wave sleep, but end up in the lighter stages of sleep so you feel alert when you wake up.

“Medium-length naps of around 45 minutes can be problematic because you will likely wake up during slow-wave sleep, the deepest stage, which can leave you with that groggy feeling – called sleep inertia – when you wake up.”

8. Eating cheese before bed will give you nightmares

Dr Patel explains: “Despite the rumour, there is no current evidence to support the idea that eating cheese directly results in the experience of nightmares. However, studies show that eating foods high in fat or protein late at night, such as cheese or meats, can disrupt REM sleep (the kind of sleep where we experience the most intense dreams).”

“This disruption often occurs because fatty or protein-rich foods generally take more time to break down and their digestion can cause you to wake up during the night. Waking up more frequently also means we’re more likely to remember our dreams, which may be where the link between cheese and nightmares was established.”

“Hard cheeses, salami, or pepperoni should also be avoided before bed as they may contain tyramine, which can trigger the release of stimulating neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine.”

9. People always speak the truth when they sleep-talk

Dr Patel mentions: “Sleep-talking, otherwise known as somniloquy, can be quite common among adolescents and is often caused by increased levels of stress or anxiety or the consumption of stimulants such as coffee or alcohol.

“While most sleep-talking consists of unintelligible groans or murmurs, sometimes people may speak in fully-formed phrases. In the same way that dreams often consist of untrue elements, sleep-talking does as well, so don’t dwell on anything you hear a friend or partner saying while they’re asleep!”

10. Waking a sleepwalker is dangerous

Dr Patel comments: “The idea that waking a sleepwalker will cause serious damage is a myth; however, it is generally recommended to guide them back to bed as gently as possible, as waking up suddenly could cause distress or sudden bursts of anger.”

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