Most of us know the basic rules when it comes to getting a good night’s sleep. But with so much advice circulating online, the evidence-backed theories often get lost amid the hoary myths.
And when those misconceptions fit with what we want to hear, like ‘you can make up for lost sleep with a weekend lie-in’ or ‘alcohol can help you fall asleep quicker’ it can be tempting to file these nuggets of misinformation and use them to justify your guilty habits.
To help separate the facts from the fiction, we’ve unpicked some of the more common myths around sleep so we can put them to bed once and for all.
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You might think that spending Saturday morning curled up under your duvet will make up for a week of burning the candle at both ends but research suggests otherwise.
A study at Penn State College of Medicine
in Pennsylvania found that three 10-hour ‘recovery’ sleeps weren’t effective in reversing the effects of six night’s of restricted sleep.
Researcher Dr Vgontzas said: “After one work week of mild sleep deprivation, two recovery nights were adequate in improving sleepiness but not performance.
“The usual practice of extending sleep during the weekend after a busy work week associated with mild sleep loss is not adequate in reversing the cumulative effects on cognitive function resulting from this mild sleep deprivation.”
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Still not ready to ditch your weekend bed-in? Not only will a lie-in fail to make up for chronic sleep loss, further studies have found that too much sleep can be detrimental to our grey matter.
Researchers at the University of Hong Kong found that too much as well as too little sleep was linked to memory impairment
, while a study published in the 'Journal of Sleep Research' found that long sleep duration as well as short sleep duration was associated with decreased cognitive function
To avoid oversleeping, chartered physiotherapist and author of The Good Sleep Guide
Sammy Margo suggests making up for sleep deficit at the beginning of the night:
“The way to catch up on sleep is by going to bed early. Having a lie-in on the weekends can make you feel even more groggy. Get up at the same time every morning, if possible, and go to be early at night.”
But she adds that the eight-hours-a-night rule is another long-standing myth: “How much sleep we need varies from person to person. Some need more, some need less but the average amount is around six to eight hours. The question you have to ask yourself is: how do you feel when you wake up in the morning?”
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It might seem counterintuitive but according to scientists, our body’s core temperature needs to drop in order to promote sleep.
“Aim for a room temperature around 16-18°C or 62-65°F, a temperature that matches what occurs deep inside the body when its temperature drops during the night to its lowest level,” suggests Margo.
“Extreme temperatures can disrupt sleep or prevent you from falling asleep in the first place,” adds Jade Wells, a Physiologist at Nuffield Health
. “So try to maintain a comfortable temperature in the bedroom either by opening a window, using air conditioning or adapting the thermostat/heaters in your room.”
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If you’ve ever tried to go to straight to bed after a three-course restaurant meal, you’ll probably be familiar with the negative effects of eating too much too late. Spicy and acidic food can be particularly problematic as it can lead to heartburn, which is exacerbated by lying down.
But if you have your main meal a few hours before bedtime, a late snack could even be beneficial in aiding sleep, according to research.
“Hunger can also disrupt sleep. A small snack might help such as some warm milk or a small bowl of oats with yoghurt, a slice of wholemeal bread with banana. Some herbal teas such as chamomile are also helpful,” says Dr Elena Philippou, Assistnat Professor in Nutrition-Dietetics at the University of Nicosia, Cypress.
Margo also recommends ‘sleepy snacks’, such as bananas, milk and almonds, which are high in the amino-acid tryptophan, which converts into ‘sleepy hormone’ melatonin and serotonin in the body. Research has shown that L-tryptophan can induce sleepiness in those with mild insomnia
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A little nip of something before bed might seem like a good way to send you off to sleep but even a small amount of alcohol can have a significant impact on your quality of sleep, according John Groeger, Professor of Psychology at the University of Hull
“We often think we’ll relax with a drink so we’ll have, say, a whiskey before we go to bed. And that will relax us and we might even fall asleep a bit quicker but it actually changes the structure of our sleep in such a way that it is lighter and we think probably less refreshing,” he warns.
“Alcohol reduces the deeper sleep so that may get more REM sleep. In this stage you’re much easier to wake, and once you wake, if you’re worried about stuff, it’s hard to switch off and get back to sleep so it becomes this downward cycle.”