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Sleep Myths Debunked

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Most of us are aware of the health benefits of exercise and a good, balanced diet. Some of us even manage to adhere to them. There are many factors that can lead to a happy, healthy and fulfilled life and yet one crucial ingredient is often overlooked: sleep.

Getting enough sleep is pivotal to our ability to function as human beings. Sure, we can get by on just a few hours – and many of us do – but in order to perform at our optimum level we’re realistically going to need somewhere in the region of seven to nine hours of sleep per night. Of course, these amounts are not set in stone, and in reality, studies show many of us sleep fewer than seven hours. The average length of sleep varies enormously from person to person, depending on age, activity levels and upon our individual personalities and lifestyle choices. Many of us aren’t getting enough sleep: around 40 million people in the U.S. alone suffer from chronic sleep disorders, and others still suffer from occasional sleep problems and insomnia.

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Sleep is essential to the health of the individual, but also the community in which he or she lives. Fatigue-related driving accidents are one of the major causes of road crashes, and it’s thought that up to 20 percent of accidents are caused due to a sleepy driver behind the wheel. Disorientation, loss of concentration, irritability and depression can all manifest from lack of sleep, making even the simplest of day to day tasks seem insurmountable. Worries over money, relationships and work are common causes of insomnia, which can in turn lead to the exact same problems that caused this sleeplessness in the first place.

When it comes to the medical ins and outs of sleep, there are lots of little-known facts to be discovered. Most people don’t know that snoring can be hugely detrimental to health. Sleep apnea is a serious and debilitating condition that affects many adults and results in shallow breathing, pauses in breath and the kind of broken, interrupted sleep that prevents sufferers from achieving quality, restorative sleep. In severe cases, the sufferer can stop breathing entirely for up to 30 seconds or so.

Shift workers are often prone to sleep problems as the body struggles to readjust daily to differing sleep patterns. Having a baby or children who wake in the night is another extremely common cause of sleep deprivation. Unfortunately, most of us fail to heed the warning signs and only address our sleep situation when the health effects have got to a critical mass, and the impact on our lives can no longer be ignored.

When tackling sleep disorders and insomnia, it’s important to know a little of the science behind sleep. Our bodies function around an internal clock – or circadian rhythm – that regulates our sleep pattern and tells us when to sleep and when to wake. Daylight plays a crucial role in maintaining our circadian rhythm, and exposure to daylight during the day ensures we remain alert. During the evening, when daylight fades, our bodies secrete the hormone melatonin causing us to wind down and feel sleepy. Research has shown that excessive exposure to artificial light at night – specifically blue light – may interfere with melatonin production and affect our ability to sleep. Avoiding bright light and a using carefully timed course of melatonin can help to regulate this. Conversely, those suffering from an inability to stay awake past early evening – commonly these people are very early risers too – may benefit from greater exposure to daylight, and light therapy may be advised. Understanding our natural patterns and finding ways to sync these with our desired schedule is part of how sleep therapists can help sufferers to overcome insomnia and sleep disorders.

The U.S. National Sleep Foundation recently conducted a worldwide Bedroom Poll to examine the bedroom habits of 1,500 participants between the ages of 25 and 55 across six countries: the U.S.A., the U.K., Japan, Germany, Mexico and Canada. The Japanese slept the least on an average work night (just six hours and 22 minutes) while Mexicans slept the most (seven hours and six minutes). Interestingly, 54 percent of Japanese – the highest figure out of all the countries surveyed – believe that they are getting a good night’s sleep every night, with only 40 percent of Germans feeling that they sleep well every night. Germans were also the least likely to sleep through the night, with only 40 percent of those polled claiming to have slept through the night “every night, or almost every night” in the previous two weeks. A clean, tidy and fresh smelling room was of greatest importance to Mexicans, with around 82 percent saying they like to make their bed every day and 92 percent saying a fresh, pleasant scent is important to them. Only 44 percent of Japanese make their bed every day, and the Japanese agreed least with the statement, “I feel more relaxed if my bed or bedroom has a fresh, pleasant scent.” One hundred percent of Germans said they like to air their bedroom at least once a week.

Cultural predilections aside, this survey highlights the subtle differences between nations’ sleep habits, and indicates that what we perceive as being good or bad for us may be largely based on culturally biased perceptions of what is healthy. Studies like this one may provide clues as to why so many of us feel inclined to muddle through on less sleep than is good for us.

In the search for a solution on how to achieve to the perfect amount of sleep, myths and old wives tales abound, and while there is often more than a grain of truth to some of these, there are many myths that are more likely to have you pacing in the darkness than visiting the land of nod. Here are a few myths debunked, and some DOs and DON’Ts to help you achieve better sleep.

MYTH: Going to bed earlier will help you sleep

While this may be the case for those suffering from occasional or temporary fatigue, persistent insomnia will require a slightly different approach. Lying in bed and worrying about not being able to sleep often only exacerbates the problem. Staying out of bed for longer, or remaining passively awake is one way to try to take your mind off the worry of not sleeping, and can help promote sleepiness. Try reading or focusing on a light task to take your mind off the situation and do not be tempted to lie awake in bed if sleep fails to happen. Establishing a positive, less anxious link with the bedroom is crucial when tackling this scenario.

MYTH: Alcohol will help you sleep

Yes, alcohol will make you feel sleepy and help bring about the onset of sleep. But drinking too much too close to bedtime – and that’s anything up to six hours ahead of bedtime – will actually have you waking more and will negatively impact your beneficial Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep. REM is a crucial restorative phase, and you don’t want it interrupted due to the stimulating effects of alcohol in your bloodstream.

MYTH: Exercise will help you sleep

Regular exercise is a no brainer when it comes to maintaining good health, and it is highly recommended for insomniacs. However, vigorous exercise too close to bedtime may cause some people to find it harder to fall asleep, thanks to the stimulating effects of adrenaline and an increase in body temperature. Instead, exercise earlier in the day, or try a lower impact exercise before bed such as yoga or pilates, and focus on winding down with calming breathing techniques.

MYTH: You can make up for lost sleep at the weekend

While the odd poor night’s sleep can be made up in this way, regularly missing even an hour of sleep each night causes us to fall into a sleep deficit whereby we never really recoup the missing hours. The best way to minimise the risk of racking up this kind of sleep debt is to ensure we get enough sleep during the week, and that means getting to bed earlier.

MYTH: Some people only need a few hours sleep at night

Although some of us can function well on six hours sleep, the reality is that just a tiny fraction of the population genuinely need less – recent research suggests this figure is around just 2 percent. The rest of need at least six hours, and usually more.

MYTH: Counting sheep will help you sleep

A 2010 Oxford University study debunked this myth when researchers found that subjects who were asked to count sheep took up to 20 minutes longer than participants who visualised more relaxing scenarios. Avoid this boring, and mindless technique that only encourages the mind to wander. Listen to a quiet meditation CD or relaxing music and focus instead on calm breathing.

DON’T be afraid to seek professional help to tackle the underlying problems that may be causing a sleep disorder. Cognitive behavioural therapy and psychotherapy may be beneficial to help you get to the root of any anxiety, and may provide vital insights to help facilitate and manage a healthy sleep routine. Try contacting a sleep therapist for further advice.

DO get out during the day and soak up some sunlight. Even on cloudy days, the exposure will do you good and help to keep you alert during the day, and help to regulate your sleep cycle and melatonin production.

DON’T stare at a computer screen close or watch TV in bed close to bedtime – the bright blue spectrum light and increased brain activity are a sure fire way to delay the onset of sleep.

DO bring consistency to your bedtime routine. Try to go to bed and rise at the same time so your body gets accustomed to this cycle and adjusts accordingly. Keep a sleep diary if necessary to better understand where the problems may be occurring. Begin a wind down routine an hour before bed. Learn some meditation and muscle relaxation techniques.

DON’T eat big meals too close to bedtime. The body will be in digestive mode and this could prove disruptive and prevent sleep. Caffeine, alcohol, chocolate and spicy foods can all interfere with sleep too, and are best avoided close to bedtime.

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