Sleep Smarter: debunking common myths about sleep
By Rhean Sun, MFA
You probably hear it all the time, maybe from your family, the media, or even your instructors: Make sure you’re getting enough sleep!
So you know the basics, but did you know that many of the common assumptions we make about sleep are actually misconceptions? Unless you’ve taken Dr. Dement’s Sleep and Dreams class (a big hit in my undergrad days...where else can you get extra credit for falling asleep during lecture?), you might not know how to parse sleep facts from fiction. Here are a few common myths to be aware of:
- It’s normal to be able to fall asleep anywhere, at any time.
Sure, it might seem like a gift; the minute your head hits the pillow or the car/Marguerite/Caltrain starts moving, you’re out like a light. But in reality, it’s a sign that you’re sleep deprived, and your body is responding by falling into “micro sleeps” whenever it has a moment to rest. Remember that you should be striving for seven to ten hours of sleep per night.
- Your body naturally adapts to less sleep.
Wouldn’t it be convenient if we could optimize our brains to function on fewer hours of sleep each night? We could spend more time hanging out with friends, watching Netflix, and catching up on assignments. But alas, our bodies don’t work that way. That’s because they cycle through four different sleep phases—including REM, the most restorative—which are meant to repeat several times a night. In other words, you need a full night’s sleep to reap all the benefits.
- Drinking alcohol before bedtime helps you sleep.
A little nightcap might help you fall asleep faster, but it won’t help you stay asleep. Alcohol is linked to the production of adenosine, a chemical that helps induce sleepiness, but this chemical wears off part way through the night—often causing you to wake up before you’ve gotten a full night’s rest and interrupting your much-needed REM sleep.
- Watching TV helps you relax before bed.
There’s something that feels so right about curling up in bed and watching your favorite movie or show after a long day of work or classes. And that’s okay...as long as you avoid doing it within an hour of bedtime. The blue light emitted by our devices interrupts the release of melatonin, which helps us sleep more soundly. Instead, you might read, meditate, or listen to music. At the very least, if you must use your laptop or phone for an assignment, make sure you have something like Night Shift turned on; this switches your display to warmer colors, which don’t affect you the same way.
- Hitting the snooze button lets you sneak in extra Zs.
Ah yes, one of our favorite forms of procrastination. Why is it bad for your sleep? Because in the morning, as your sleep comes to an end, you’re most likely nearing the end of your last REM cycle. When you hit “snooze,” your brain falls right back into that cycle, only to be jarred awake again a few minutes later, when you’re the middle of that cycle and at your peak grogginess. To avoid this, consider putting your phone on the other side of the room so you have to physically get up to turn it off. You can also turn on a bright light in the morning (as long as your roommate doesn’t protest) to signal to your body that it’s time to wake up.
We hope these tips will not only help you sleep longer, but also sleep smarter, so you can wake up feeling refreshed and ready rock the day!