7 major myths about your sleep
Good news: You don’t eat spiders at night.
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From slumbering giants to The Princess and the Pea, sleep is apt for folklore. We’re unconscious for a whopping third of the day, meaning there’s lots of interesting factoids about what happens in that time. Perhaps you’ve come across the infamous notion that people swallow spiders while asleep. Fortunately, it’s been debunked.
But that sleep myth got me wondering about just how many other things we believe about sleep are lurking falsehoods. My main duty as Reviewed's sleep writer is, well, sleeping—namely, testing the best mattresses. But I also do deep dives into the subject—and that includes learning what is and isn’t true about catching zzz's.
1. You can catch up on sleep on the weekend
When you don’t get enough sleep for multiple nights and wake up feeling sluggish, it's called “sleep debt.” The problem with the term “debt” is that it implies you can somehow pay it back.
Taking naps may help. “If you're going to be up all night for some reason, taking a nap [in the] afternoon might help you function better. So in that sense you can kind of pay it forward,” says Dr. Atul Malhotra, a sleep medicine specialist at UC San Diego. “Similarly, if you get sleep-deprived on weekdays, you can sleep in on weekends and do a bit better.”
But Malhotra cautions that sleep recovery can take several days. Consistently missing out on quality sleep during the work week and making some of it up here or there almost certainly won’t be enough.
Similarly, you may have heard successful moguls claim they can run on only a few hours of sleep. Malhotra says that no one is exempt from the seven to nine hour rule. “If you get less than that, there’s always consequences,” he says.
2. Scrolling on your phone before bed is no big deal
If there’s one foe of sleep in the modern world, it’s light—especially an overabundance of it. Our circadian rhythms synchronize with the ebbs and flows of natural light throughout the day. Phones, TVs, and other screens get in the way. Electronics’ light photons suppress melatonin, a hormone that’s essential for drowsiness, says Dr. David Neubauer, a psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins University.
Phones have sleep settings that purportedly decrease blue light, but it’s better to stay away. And that includes steering clear of everything from meditation apps to dozing off to Netflix. “Even if your eyes are closed, if you're actively involved in something with your phone, that is stimulating,” Neubauer says.
“[Light and electronics are] part of the reason that some people have trouble falling asleep, or their circadian cycle is delayed because of all of the light exposure from room lights, plus all the other electronics,” he continues. In fact, Neubauer suggests that people who reach for melatonin supplements would be better off working with what their body naturally produces, and doing their best to limit light exposure instead.
If you must be exposed to lights, there are options to make it slightly better. One of the experts I spoke to suggested considering using sleep-friendly light bulbs, like the Restful Bedtime Bulb. These skew toward red or orange, which is at the opposite end of the light spectrum and theoretically decreases the toll on sleep.
3. You should avoid sleeping on your stomach
Though some sleep positions are better for specific medical conditions or pregnant people, there isn’t one that’s universally recommended. In fact, the best sleep position is what works well for you.
There’s a widespread idea that back sleeping is the best for your spinal health, but none of the experts I spoke to cited it as the be-all and end-all of sleep positions. What’s more, none of them thought that sleeping on your stomach was particularly worse for spinal health either.
You can, however, optimize your current set-up—we’ve tested dozens of the best mattresses to throw in our own two cents. For back and stomach sleepers, a firmer bed like the Tuft & Needle Original will provide better support than a squishy one. However, a softer option, like the Nectar mattress may fit the bill for side sleepers who want their hips and shoulders to sink in for a bit of cushion.
4. Snoring is a sign that you’re sleeping well
“There's a pretty widespread notion that snoring is normal … and just means that you're sleeping really deeply—and that’s wrong,” Neubauer says. “Snoring is not a good thing.”
It’s often indicative of a common health condition: “A whole lot of people who snore have sleep apnea,” Neubauer says. Those with sleep apnea experience involuntary lapses in breathing throughout the night. It can be caused (or exacerbated) by sleep position, but there are other factors that often play a role, too.
Of course, it can be hard to know if you snore. Neubauer says that if you’re woken up by your own snoring, you should seek out an expert medical opinion as quickly as possible, as that likely indicates it’s a severe case. Otherwise, you’re most likely to hear complaints from a bed partner. In this instance, you should still seek medical advice. Neubauer recommends starting with your primary care provider.
5. Using a sleep tracker will improve your sleep
Sleep trackers can illuminate patterns and help you notice bad habits. But slapping a Fitbit on your wrist, won’t automatically improve your sleep. You have to know why you’re using it in the first place.
These detailed may be useful to recognize changes in your sleep, and that's especially true of technology that passively collects data. These devices don’t always provide as much information as wearable fitness trackers, but they may also be easier to use without obsessing over. A newer term in the medical lexicon exists for this—”orthosomnia,” an unhealthy, perfectionistic quest to sleep well.
The Google Nest Hub, which sits on a bedside table, is one of the best passive trackers I’ve tried. Its Sleep Sensing turned out to be the most accurate tracking I've encountered so far. If you go through a major life change and have a hunch that your sleep’s worse for wear, these trackers can back up (or refute) your suspicions. Then, you can act on that information with the help of a medical professional.
6. Eating turkey or drinking milk will make you sleepy
Both turkey and milk contain tryptophan, an amino acid that’s involved in the sleep cycle. Think back to all those Thanksgiving dinners when you felt exhausted after a nice serving of turkey. In reality, it likely wasn’t the turkey at all.
To see effects from tryptophan, “you'd have to eat a 40-pound turkey,” says Michael Breus, a psychologist with expertise in sleep. Similarly, you’d need to drink nearly a gallon of milk, he says.
That’s not to say that you won’t feel tired after a hearty turkey dinner followed by a glass of milk. It just means that it’s not going to make you doze off for the night at 6 o’clock. Malhotra has run across patients who say they sleep better after drinking a glass of milk, to which he says: “To each their own. If you feel it helps you sleep, then go for it.”
7. A weighted blanket will improve anyone’s sleep
The experts I spoke with for this article weren’t willing to make a universal case for or against weighted blankets, a fad that took off on social media a few years ago. For those who are unfamiliar, weighted blankets were initially popular among people with autism spectrum disorders, though they eventually gained traction in broader circles. While many swear by them, they aren’t a definitive sleep solution.
Each source echoed the same idea when it came to weighted blankets: It may help you sleep, and if it does, that’s stellar. But it’s possible you won't notice a difference in your sleep quality, and that's fine, too.
If you think you'd like the sensation, our favorite is the Original Gravity Blanket, which we love for its even distribution of beads and ability to stay put. The company also has a cooling weighted blanket. While we didn’t find that it actively cools you, it doesn’t sleep as hot as the company’s most popular model.
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