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3 Sleep Specialists Debunk The Sleep Myths They Hear All The Time

Woman lying in bed awake
Image by Lucas Ottone / Stocksy
January 7, 2022
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For something we do so often, sleep is pretty misunderstood. Blame outdated research or the fibs our parents told us as kids to get us to go to bed, but a lot of the things we believe about sleep simply aren't true. To set the record straight, we're passing the mic to three psychologists and psychiatrists who help people sleep for a living. Here are the pervasive sleep myths they hear all the time in their practice and the reasons they need to be debunked.

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Sleep myths that experts want to debunk:

"It's good to fall asleep as soon as your head hits the pillow."

In a way, this is true, as someone with a strong sleep pressure (the pressure gets stronger the longer we stay awake and decreases during sleep) will often fall asleep quickly and stay asleep throughout the night. However, falling asleep as soon as your head meets the pillow can be a sign that you're not getting enough sleep... Make sure that your tiredness is due to daytime activities and not a lack of sleep.

—Li Åslund, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and sleep expert at Sleep Cycle

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"It doesn't matter what time you sleep, as long as you're sleeping for long enough."

There's this myth that as long as you get eight hours of sleep, even if it's at different times every day, that's OK. While it is important to get enough sleep, you also really want to pay attention to the regularity and timing of your sleep. That affects your circadian rhythm, and if your circadian rhythm is misaligned, it can cause other health issues down the line... So the timing of your sleep is really important.

Nishi Bhopal, M.D., psychiatrist specializing in sleep medicine.

"Everyone needs eight hours of sleep a night."

I don't even like the idea of a good night's rest because it's so personalized. It's different for everybody. The biggest myth I hear? Everyone needs eight hours. Let me be clear: There is nothing less true! Eight hours is not necessarily what everybody needs. Take the fact that the average sleep cycle takes about 90 minutes. The average human has five of those 90-minute cycles a night. If you just do the math, 5 times 90 is 450 minutes, which is 7.5 hours... Everybody's sleep needs also change over time. It can change over the course of seasons, or yearly. It can change monthly for women. Again, this myth of eight hours is one we really need to smash.

Michael Breus, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and sleep specialist (on an episode of the mindbodygreen podcast)

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"Alcohol makes sleeping easier."

People sometimes express the idea that consuming alcohol before going to bed is good for sleep. Alcohol can make you fall asleep faster but has a negative effect on sleep quality. Studies have revealed that time spent in REM sleep (the sleep stage where dreams occur) decreases after drinking alcohol1.

—Li Åslund, Ph.D.

"Napping during the day can make up for a lack of sleep at night."

That one's not necessarily true. I'm a proponent of napping; I think it can be really useful when done the right way. But on a regular basis, if you're finding that you always need to tap naps, that's a sign you're not getting enough sleep at night or you're not getting good-quality sleep. Your focus should be on getting good-quality sleep, for the right amount of time for your body, on a consistent schedule. Then you can use naps as an adjunct but not as a replacement.

—Nishi Bhopal, M.D.

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"I can sleep in on the weekends to catch up on sleep after the workweek."

It's almost impossible to catch up on sleep...The consistency of your sleep schedule is actually what gives you energy. It's actually what allows you to feel better. If you can keep the moment you wake up consistent with your chronotype every day, you will have far more energy and—believe it or not—need less sleep.

—Michael Breus, Ph.D.

Emma Loewe
Emma Loewe
mbg Sustainability + Health Director

Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.

Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.