6 sleep myths you can put to bed

When it comes to sleep, most people have heard an old wives’ tale or two – that wine helps you sleep better, or counting sheep is the only way to drop off. And while many of us blindly accept they’re true, scientists aren’t so sure. Here are six myths that could change your sleep routine for the better!

1. Older people need less sleep
Not true, says Dr Brendon Yee, sleep and respiratory physician at Sydney’s Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. “We know your sleep changes as we get older, with more ‘light’ sleep phases and less deep sleep, but our need for deep sleep and quality sleep is the same. Quality means sleep that’s not fragmented, with adequate periods of slow wave sleep and REM sleep. Not sleep that’s interrupted because you’ve got sleep apnea, or restless legs, or insomnia.”

2. Counting sheep helps you fall asleep
Apparently not, according to scientists at Oxford University who studied two groups of insomniacs and gave some instructions to distract themselves with specific things (like sheep), or nothing at all. Interestingly, when participants were told to imagine relaxing scenes, like a soothing beach scene or field of flowers, they fell asleep on average 20 minutes sooner. So it might be worth visualising your ‘happy place’ when trying to sleep – whether that’s a beach holiday you had last year, or the bucolic view from your back porch!

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Visualising a 'happy place' rather than sheep could help you snooze sooner

3. You MUST get eight hours a night or you’ll get sick
The media often mentions eight hours as the magic figure of sleep we all need or you’ll get heart disease or strokes or diabetes or obesity, but that’s not strictly true, says Dr Yee. “People have different needs and one of the interesting things is there’s a lot of variability. You could put 50 people in a lab and some will fall to pieces [with sleep deprivation] and others won’t. Why? We don’t know. It’s like a lot of things in medicine. You might expose people to 40 cigarettes a day for 30 years and some will develop lung cancer and others won’t. We don’t know why and those are the issues as doctors we try to face.”

4. A warm glass of milk will help you sleep
It’s a nice thought and probably one we associate with drinking milk as kids before bedtime – but scientifically, milk is probably not going to get you dropping off in a hurry, say researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Milk is jam packed with tryptophan, a sleep-inducing amino acid – but for it to have the desired sleepy effect, it has to cross the blood/brain barrier and the tryptophan has to fight other amino acids to do so. The solution, they suggested, was to eat carb-rich foods to stimulate the release of insulin which helped the tryptophan enter the brain. So maybe include a piece of toast along with your milk!

5. Monitoring your sleep is easy with a device such as the Fitbit
Nope, and in fact, you should take your Fitbit’s ‘sleep report’ with a grain of salt, warns Dr Yee. “When you measure sleep in a lab, you use an EEG, you have brain leads on, you measure eye movements and muscle tone. I’m not so sure how a device you wear on your wrist can measure sleep objectively! I also think these devices can cause extra stress and anxiety for someone already worried about their sleep, so it’s important we all remain a bit cynical about these new technologies and what they can actually do.”

6. You sleep better with a few glasses of wine under your belt
Sure, you might drop off more easily, but don’t be fooled – using alcohol as a sleep aid can be more detrimental if your quest is a good night’s sleep, say experts. Sleep may be deeper at first, but it becomes increasingly disrupted during the night and will probably promote snoring and poorer breathing. You can also sweat more as your body tries to maintain an optimal body temperature, which can again lead to disturbed sleep – and because alcohol is a diuretic, it can also mean a lot more trips to the loo in the wee hours. Result? Waking up feeling worse, rather than refreshed!

What’s your favourite old wives’ tale about sleep?

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