Myths and Facts About a Good Night's Sleep
Apr 30, 2019 Cedars-Sinai Staff
Sleep is one of the most essential needs for our minds and bodies and we do it pretty much every day. But there are still plenty of myths and misunderstandings around it.
David Scott, PhD, a psychologist in the Cedars-Sinai Pain Center, treats many people with sleeping disorders so we asked him to help us separate fact from fiction.
Myth: Sleep doesn't need to be a priority
The #1 myth about sleep is that it's not important, says Scott.
"A thing that you do for a third of your life is very important," he says. "It's worth making a priority. We tend to make everything else a priority. The best advice I can give is to make good sleep a priority."
You can't cheat or trick your body into needing less sleep.
Poor sleep hurts us in the long term, increasing the risk of heart disease, depression, type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure.
It's not good in the short term, either. We can't learn things as quickly, our reaction time slows, thinking clearly feels impossible, and we're more likely to have accidents.
Myth: You can condition yourself to need less sleep
In general, our bodies can push through exhaustion and keep going, Scott says. But only temporarily.
Scraping by on minimal sleep isn't sustainable. You can't cheat or trick your body into needing less sleep because it's important to spend time in the various phases of sleep to fully restore yourself.
"We tend to make everything else a priority. The best advice I can give is to make good sleep a priority."
During the deeper sleep phases, the body heals itself, releases growth hormones, and processes memories. We cycle through these phases several times during a good night's sleep, allowing the body and brain adequate rest.
Children routinely need 12 hours of sleep a night. Teens need about 11. We need less sleep as we get older, but adults still need at least 7 hours of sleep a night. There's no cheating it.
Fact: Catching up on sleep takes longer than you think
If you build up a sleep deficit, don't expect to pay it back with one long nap, Scott says.
"The longer and more profound your sleep deprivation is, the longer it's going to take to catch up," he says. "In general, know that getting one good night's sleep isn't sufficient."
How much sleep you'll need to make up for a deficit varies from person to person. It may not be a matter of accounting for the exact number of minutes or hours missed.
It's easier to make up for one evening of burning the midnight oil than it is for a sustained period without uninterrupted, high-quality sleep. New parents, for example, who are dealing with many nights and weeks of interrupted sleep will take a long time to "pay back" their sleep.
Fact: Drowsy driving is as dangerous as drunk driving
Drowsiness makes drivers unable to pay attention to the road, slows your reaction time, and hurts your decision-making ability—much like drunkenness does.
About 72,000 crashes a year involve drowsy driving, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics.
Being awake for 24 hours is comparable to driving with a blood alcohol level of .10, according to a study published in the health journal Sleep. (Most states consider a blood alcohol level of .08 to be drunk driving.)
A panel of experts in the study said most healthy drivers become too impaired to drive if they've had only 3-5 hours of sleep in the prior 24 hours.
"If you drive to work, that's one more good reason to get good, healthy sleep," Scott says.
Myth and fact: Melatonin can help (but maybe differently than you think)
Melatonin is a natural hormone that plays a role in sleep and over-the-counter melatonin supplements have become popular.
"But if you're taking it when you go to bed and are ready to fall asleep, that's too late for it to be helpful," Scott says.
Melatonin can help regulate the sleep cycle, but it's not a sedative, so it can't make you sleepy. It's more likely to be useful if you take it a few hours before bedtime.
As always, talk to your primary care provider before taking melatonin or other dietary supplements.
And if you're regularly having trouble sleeping, that's also something your healthcare provider needs to need to know.