Sleep: myths and misconceptions

There’s many misunderstandings about sleep, including how much we need and when. Let's dispel the myths and misconceptions and help you catch some quality shut eye.

Sleep is vital for our health and wellbeing. It’s a time when our minds rest and our bodies repair and rejuvenate. The way we live, learn and work all impacts our physical and mental health, including our sleep. 

Sleep myth: we all need 8 hours of sleep 

While 8 hours is often the recommended average, it’s a guide. Individuals all function differently, some might thrive on 7 hours, whereas others don’t feel good unless they’ve had nearer 9. When you’re functioning at your best, reflect on how much sleep you’ve had. This’ll help find that sweet spot for you. 

Sleep misconception: an hour before midnight is worth two after midnight 

Sleep consists of 90 minute cycles as our brain moves from restorative deep sleep or non-rapid eye movement (non-REM) to lighter, rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Most of our deep (non-REM) sleep happens in the first third of our nightly sleep period. In order to get enough of each type, the optimum window to nod off is between 8pm and 12am, which is probably where this misconception stems from. However, each person’s natural ‘sleep phase’ (when sleep naturally occurs) varies. What works for one person, most certainly doesn’t for another, night owls and morning larks prove this. 

Sleep myth: waking up at night is bad 

The reality is that waking up at night is completely normal. As each 90 minute sleep cycle concludes, often we wake and adjust our sleeping position or even pop to the loo before going back to sleep. Generally, we don’t remember waking at all. Broken sleep can become a problem though if we can’t get back to sleep and/or the resulting tiredness causes us problems the next day. 

Sleep misconception: feeling tired when you wake up means you need more sleep 

Unlike in the cartoons, very few of us wake up in the morning and spring earnestly out of bed ready for the day. Just as it takes a while for us to wind down and drift off to sleep, it’s natural for our bodies to take a little while to wake up fully. Residual tiredness can be a sign you’ve not had enough sleep, but the initial urge to go back to sleep when the alarm goes off is very normal. Try taking a few deep breaths and wiggling your fingers and toes to wake yourself up. 

Sleep myth: insomnia is biological and needs a biological treatment 

A severe lack of sleep isn’t good for our mental health and can cause us to feel depressed, confused and irritable. There’s many physical conditions that can cause insomnia including arthritis, COPD and acid reflux disorder which can be helped by medical treatments.  

If we’re having sleep issues, it can help to look at our thoughts, feelings and habits surrounding sleep. Often insomnia starts with a stressful life event such as an illness, bereavement or work related stress. Generally, usual sleep patterns return once the time of stress passes. For some people, lack of sleep becomes a focus of anxiety. Behaviour changes to compensate for sleep loss, like taking a nap and sleeping in on the weekend, can perpetuate sleep problems and maintain insomnia. 

Medication can be helpful for people with acute sleep problems but it can be a good idea to tackle the root cause. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can help address the feelings and behaviours surrounding sleep. You can contact your GP for guidance and local providers.  

Sleep misconception: you should try to catch up on all the sleep you’ve missed 

When we start to chase sleep, it can increase anxiety. We don’t need to do this on an hour-for-hour basis. Sleep studies suggest we only need to make up around a third of lost hours. It’s most beneficial to add a little more time onto future night’s sleep, as opposed to one sleep marathon. Try going to bed when you’re tired and allowing yourself to wake up naturally without an alarm clock if possible. As you erase the sleep deprivation, you’ll find your body will come to rest at a sleep pattern that works for you and your needs.