High-quality sleep is crucial for overall well-being. After all, a proper snooze affects so many avenues of health—from immune function to weight gain, stress, skin health, and more. And yet! There are a plethora of misconceptions about sleep running rampant in society, specifically around the notion of a "good night's rest." How can we expect to reap all the profound benefits of sleep if we don't even know what "good" sleep really means?
Clinical psychologist and board-certified sleep specialist Michael J. Breus, Ph.D., also known as "The Sleep Doctor," is here to put the rumors to bed. On this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast, he debunks four common sleep myths and what actually increases your chances of high-quality shut-eye:
Myth 1: Everyone needs eight hours.
According to Breus, eight hours shouldn't be the standard for sleep. In fact, he says there shouldn't be a standard at all: "It's so personalized and it's so different for everybody," he says. "Eight hours is not necessarily what everybody needs." He explains that the average sleep cycle, from wake to REM, takes approximately 90 minutes, and the average human has five of these 90-minute cycles (if you do the math, that clocks out to around seven and a half hours). But that's just the average! You may require more or less sleep than the average person, and that's OK.
"I've [seen patients] who need more sleep before they have their period and who need less sleep after they have their periods, and we adjust their bedtimes accordingly," says Breus. Some people's circadian rhythms change with the seasons—there are a host of factors that can affect your perfect snooze range.
When people use eight hours as the standard for sleep, says Breus, it can cause increased anxiety for people who don't meet the threshold. "They get in bed, and they think, 'OK, I've got enough time to get my eight hours,’ and then they don't fall asleep. And then they start to get anxious about it, which causes autonomic arousal, which makes it harder to sleep." By smashing this eight-hour myth, you might be able to get more sleep in the long run.
Myth 2: You can catch up on sleep.
Here's another misconception: Have you ever gotten a night of poor sleep, then thought, Oh well, I'll catch up on sleep this weekend. According to Breus, it's time to nip that notion: "It's almost impossible to actually catch up on sleep," he says. "The human body can only take on so much sleep in a single bout."
In other words, your body has a limit for how much natural, healthy sleep it needs (which, again, differs for everyone). When you do cross that limit? You might feel even worse: "I don't know about you, but I feel like absolute crap if I sleep longer in the mornings than my normal wakeup time," Breus notes.
That's not to say you're completely out of luck if you're suffering from a couple of days of poor sleep. "The consistency of your sleep schedule is actually what gives you energy and is actually what allows you to feel better," Breus explains. One study even found that it takes four days to recover fully from one hour of lost sleep—so it's not so much about clocking hours as it is about reclaiming a regular schedule.
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Myth 3: If you can't sleep, get moving.
Another pervasive notion in the world of sleep? Rather than staring at the ceiling, you should get up and walk around. At first glance, yes, this is sound advice—experts say if you've been trying to fall asleep for 20 minutes with no luck, leaving your bedroom can actually help. But some people may take this counsel and run with it—literally—completing a workout in the hopes of making the body tired enough to fall asleep.
Now, Breus says daily exercise is important for high-quality sleep, just not too close to bedtime. "Remember, in order to fall asleep, your core body temperature actually has to drop," says Breus. So when you get your heart pumping (with a HIIT workout of some sort), your body temperature might be too high for your body to reach sleep mode. Thus, a night of tossing and turning. "Stop exercise roughly four hours before bed," Breus notes, and you should be set.
Myth 4: Don't eat right before bed.
Perhaps you've been warned before: Snacking before bedtime keeps you awake and energized. Again, this is an overgeneralization. Sure, you don't want to be feasting on sugary sweets right before hitting the hay, but some light snacking isn't so bad. Says Breus, "You don't want to go to bed full, but you also don't want to go to bed hungry."
Here's the science: When your body runs out of fuel, your brain activates cortisol (aka, your stress hormone that sounds the alarm bells in your body and causes a spike in blood sugar). As a result, you might wake up in the middle of the night: "When I talk to [patients], I ask the timing of their last meal, and more times than not, they stop eating at like seven o'clock at night. If you take the time from seven at night until two in the morning, that's seven and a half hours. They're out of fuel."
That's why Breus says if you constantly wake up in the middle of the night, a bedtime snack might not be such a bad idea. "There's nothing wrong with having a 200- to 250-calorie snack about 30 minutes before bed," he notes. Of course, be sure to make it balanced—Breus recommends a light snack with about 70% whole carbs and 30% either fat or protein for a perfect nibble.
Sleep is a precious thing. That's why it's important to cut through all the noise and focus on what high-quality sleep truly means for you. The perfect night's rest looks different for everyone, and Breus says it's time to start challenging what you might view as standard sleep etiquette.
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