False things about sleep you always thought were true

Sleep — we all do it, we all wish we needed less of it, and we all think we never get enough of it. Sleep is a weird thing that science is still trying to figure out, and a lot of what goes on when we sleep remains a mystery. But we have managed to debunk some of the biggest and most widespread untruths about sleep, some folklore we still believe and some false theories on what's going to help you get to sleep faster.

We get less sleep now than we ever did before

You've undoubtedly heard of the idea that between our busy schedules, technology, and the relentlessness of an ever-connected world, we're sleeping way less than mankind once did. It makes sense, sure, but studies have found that the opposite is actually true.

Researchers from the University of California compared the sleep habits of those in the industrialized world with modern hunter-gatherer people living in Namibia, Tanzania, and Bolivia. By the end of the study, 1,165 days of data showed that in contrast to the seven to eight hours a night most people in the industrialized world get, they averaged around 6.5 hours. The big difference, researchers said, is how they spent their evenings. Their work wasn't done when night fell, and they were still up prepping and preparing food, eating, and getting ready for the following day. They were up before the sun rose, almost never took naps, and got an extra hour of sleep in the winter months.

So what's going on? Since they were able to make a connection between sleep patterns and things like temperature (with that extra hour of sleep coming only with the winter), they suggest our tendency to regulate the temperature in our homes — a relatively new ability — has more of an impact on our sleep patterns than the technology that usually gets the blame.

A drink or two will help you sleep

We've all been there, at the end of a stressful day where you just can't seem to disengage enough to relax, much less sleep. Commonly held wisdom says that pouring yourself a glass of wine or cracking open a bottle of beer will help you not just relax but fall asleep and get a better night's sleep than you would if you were up thinking and worrying.

As much as we all want this one to be true, it's not. While a drink or few might help you fall asleep, alcohol also interferes with your regular sleep cycles. In a normal night, most of us get six or seven REM cycles in order to greet the morning feeling like we've gotten a good night's sleep. Under the influence of alcohol, we typically only get one or two of those cycles, and it's no wonder you usually wake up feeling little better than when you went to bed.

You're also likely to become dehydrated over the course of the night, as it doesn't just make you need to use the bathroom more (which can also interfere with your sleep), but it's going to make you sweat more, too. Alcohol relaxes our muscles and surprisingly, you don't want to be too relaxed when you fall asleep. That's going to make you more prone to snoring, and factor in the idea that alcohol generally impacts women more than men, and you're going to be in for a restless, tiring night's sleep.

You're bound to swallow a few spiders a year

You've probably heard this one, too, and you'll be happy to know that not only is it not true, but how the oft-repeated "fact" that we swallow spiders in our sleep came to be so repeated is pretty epic.

First, the science. According to Rod Crawford, arachnid curator for Seattle's Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, the last place a spider wants to be is in the mouth of a sleeping person. Not only are there only a few types of spiders commonly found in the home, but they tend to favor more prey-filled areas of the house. If one did happen to come crawling across your bed, the vibrations caused by snores, breathing, heartbeats, and all the other sleep-movements we make is enough to keep them scared away.

The story actually started as the exact opposite of a fact. According to Snopes, it was included in a list of facts written in 1993 by Lisa Holst and published in PC Professional. She was trying to prove a point about the danger of so-called facts that circulated via email, and how easily complete bunk could become widely-accepted as truth. The spider story was one of the "facts" she used in an attempt to prove how gullible people could be — and warn them not to be — and instead, ended up making her own contribution to the field of fake science.

A bit of snooze-button sleep will make you feel better

We've all hit the snooze button in the belief that just 10 more minutes is going to make us a better person from the first waking minutes of the day. Unfortunately, there are a few reasons why this one just doesn't work — and, why it could be doing more harm than good.

One reason is because hitting the snooze button once on Monday morning, three times on Tuesday, once on Wednesday, and four times on Thursday — and so on — confuses our body and our brain. When we have different waking times and different responses to the same signals, not only can we not fall into a routine, but our brains can even stop recognizing the sound of the alarm as a signal that it's time to get up. Ever slept right through your alarm? You're possibly training your brain to ignore it by hitting the snooze.

There's more to it, too. Sleep professionals say that when you fall back asleep after you hit the snooze your body tries to start another sleep cycle that it's not going to finish. When you wake up repeatedly partway through a sleep cycle, you're at the mercy of something called sleep inertia. That's the official name for that groggy feeling you get when you wake up before you're ready, and it can take about an hour and a half for everything to catch up to a waking mode. Every time you hit the snooze you're resetting that, and there's absolutely no amount of coffee or cold showering that's been shown to speed up our waking process. The best bet is to train your body and brain to know that the sound of the alarm means that you need to get up, not rest for just a few more minutes.

Women need more sleep because of more brainpower

In 2016, the internet got all worked into a frenzy over the revelation that women need more sleep than men because their brains worked more. Van Winkle's took a look at just how the story evolved, and they found that not only was there no corresponding scientific study whatsoever, but that the quotes used as "evidence" came in part from a 2010 Daily Mail article — which you can take any way you'd like. After a bunch of British tabloid-esque papers picked up the story incorrectly, it went just as viral as you probably saw.

The truth is that at the root of the entire mess were a few studies that suggest something slightly different but no less important. According to the scientist credited for uttering those controversial words, he says that he was referring to women's tendency to sleep for an average of 15 minutes longer each day than men. Jim Horne, a researcher with the Loughborough University Sleep Research Centre, was actually commenting on how men's and women's brains seem to be wired to process sleep differently. The other part of the misleading story came from a Duke University study that said that yes, women need more sleep than men, but that's because women feel the effects of sleep deprivation more strongly than men, and can suffer an increased risk of things like depression and heart disease when suffering from regular sleep problems.

In fact, a 2014 study done by the Finnish Social Insurance Institution looked at how sleep impacted sick leave for men and women, and found that the optimum average sleep a man needed was 7.8 hours, while women were at their optimal at 7.6 hours. So, the jury's still out on this one.

REM sleep is the most crucial sleep stage

When it comes to sleep cycles, we always hear about the importance of REM sleep. That's when we dream, after all, and it's no wonder that's the one that gets most of the attention. But a major part of the restorative benefits we experience don't come when we're in REM sleep, but when we're in a state called slow wave sleep, or delta sleep.

We don't dream during delta sleep, and it's during this deep sleep that we're the farthest removed from our actual environment. Deep sleep happens near the beginning of the night (we dream more in the hours closer to morning), and it's during delta sleep that our body releases growth hormones. It's also believed that deep sleep acts as a sort of mental clear-out to prepare us for the next day. You know when you're woken up in the middle of deep sleep, as it causes that groggy, disoriented feeling that's so hard to pull your mind out of.

Delta sleep is the third sleep stage, we go through it to get to REM sleep. It's also the time when blood pushed into our brain decreases, and goes to the muscles instead. That's invaluable, repairing any damage that was done during the day. It's also been linked to weight management and our immune system's ability to keep us healthy, making this a hugely important — if often overlooked — sleep stage.

Counting sheep (or other similar activities) will help you fall asleep

How often have you been told — or told someone else — that counting sheep will help your brain slip into a relaxed state that's going to make you fall asleep? As much as we would love this to be true, studies have shown that it's not.

In 2001, psychologists from Oxford University took a look at just what mental gymnastics helped volunteer insomniacs fall asleep the fastest. Participants were divided into three groups, with one control group, one group instructed to count sheep, and another group asked to envision a peaceful, relaxing mental image, like a waterfall. It was the last group that had the best results, falling asleep an average of 20 minutes faster than the other two groups. So, while you might not be able to nod off to dreamland faster by the age-old method of counting sheep, try picturing the detail of a tropical beach, a waterfall in the deep woods, or a silent, snow-covered scene and you'll be asleep before you know it.

A single block of eight hours a night is best

We hear it all the time, that we should aim for between seven and eight hours of sleep every night to reach our maximum potential. That's just unthinkable for some people, and if that's you, this will make you feel a lot better about your sleep habits.

According to Matt Bianchi, director of the sleep division of Massachusetts General Hospital, the accepted knowledge is slowly shifting more to the idea that everyone's a bit different. He cites different sleep patterns that have been successfully used throughout our history, like the so-called Dymaxion Sleep Schedule, which calls for 30-minute naps every six hours, and the Biphasic Schedule, which splits a nightly sleep into a three or four hour sleep followed by an hour awake, then another three or four hour sleep. Until electricity, in fact, that was pretty much the standard sleep cycle, and it wasn't until the 19th century that what had been a normal sleep schedule was considered abnormal. Studies from Virginia Tech and Brown Medical School support the idea, and some have found that if people are allowed to keep a sleep schedule not dictated by their waking hours, they'll default to this biphasic schedule.

And, of course, everyone's different. Professors at the University of California, San Francisco have found that some people carry a genetic mutation that allows them to get by perfectly fine on six hours of sleep a night, suggesting that it's a lot more individualized than we thought.

Insomnia just means you can't fall asleep

Insomnia means that you can't fall asleep, right? It's actually a lot more complicated than that, and there's a huge variation in how people experience insomnia. Some insomniacs fall asleep perfectly easily, but wake up in the middle of the night. Insomnia can also be falling into a sleep that's not restful, and when you wake up in the morning you feel like you haven't slept at all.

According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, insomnia is characterized by either laying awake for prolonged periods throughout the night, waking up too early, or feeling like you didn't sleep at all. Signs of insomnia happen during the day, too, and include things like trouble concentrating, depression, irritation, and waking up still feeling tired.

You shouldn't wake a sleepwalker

There are a ton of stories of people doing horrible things while they're sleepwalking. In 1996, for example, a 16-year-old Kentucky girl killed her brother and father while sleepwalking through a dream where she saw intruders in their home. Sleepwalking is surprisingly common — as much as 15 percent of the US population sleepwalks, and almost all children do — and it was due to an ancient belief in the soul leaving the body during sleep that started the idea that waking up a sleepwalker would condemn them to a life without their soul. We still often hear that it's not a good idea to wake someone who's sleepwalking, but research has shown what's going on in the brain, and that it's not as dangerous as we've all been told.

What's going on in the brain of a sleepwalker is basically an awareness in the part of the brain that governs motion, while the parts of the brain that are responsible for decision-making and forming memories are sleeping. Most sleepwalking incidents are harmless, but they have been linked to any number of accidents. Since this is a stage of sleep that's difficult to wake someone from anyway, it's often recommended that you try to guide them back to bed. They'll probably listen, and it'll be much easier than trying to explain to an incredibly groggy sleepwalker what's going on. At least you know you won't give them a heart attack or scare away their soul.

You're either a night owl or a morning lark

We're all familiar with the idea that some people are up and about — and ready to go — first thing in the morning, while others don't feel like they're in their element until after dark. It's long been said that people are either night owls or morning larks, but research from the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences suggests it's more complicated than that.

When they did a study with 130 participants, they found that only 29 people could be labeled as larks, while 44 were night owls. The rest were somewhere in between, with 25 people awake and chipper in both the morning and the night, while 32 people were equally tired across the board. That seems to suggest that the distinction to when we prefer to sleep and wake is less clear-cut than simply dividing the entire population into two neat groups. If you don't seem to fit into either box nicely, have no fear.

Other studies seem to suggest that we have no idea how complicated it really is. The University of Leicester published a study that looked at the genes of fruit flies — which are surprisingly similar to ours — to see whether or not there was a genetic connection between favored sleep schedules. They found that there was, and that they were able to identify 80 different genes that impacted when we like to sleep and when we like to be awake. Now, next time your significant other complains about your late-night Netflix binging, you can say that it's not your fault, it's how you're genetically programmed.

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