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The top 10 sleep myths debunked by an expert

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Black woman sleeping in bed
Some of the common misconceptions we have around sleep might be stopping us from getting our best snoozes. (Getty Images)

Even though many would agree that going to bed after a long day is one of the best feelings in the world, actually getting enough quality sleep can be difficult for many people.

In fact, recent research showed that Brits are barely getting by on just six hours of sleep per night - significantly less than the recommended seven to nine hours recommended by the NHS.

On top of this, there are some misconceptions about sleep that may be stopping us from getting enough of it - from believing that eating cheese before bed will give you nightmares, to myths about sleep-talkers and sleep-walkers.

Dr Hana Patel, resident sleep expert at Time4Sleep explained what’s really going on when we get some shut-eye.

Myth 1: You can ‘catch up’ on lost sleep

It’s common for many of us to think we can make up for all the sleep we lost by sleeping a few extra hours on the weekend. But, unfortunately, Dr Patel said this just isn’t true.

"Research has shown that we do not need to repay lost sleep on an hour-for-hour basis. The best evidence we have from studies of sleep deprivation suggests that we only need to make up less than a third of our lost hours, as the sleep we get on recovery nights may be deeper and more restorative," she explains.

"Rather than trying to catch up on sleep, it is better to focus your efforts on sticking to consistent sleep and wake up times each day."

Watch: How to pick the best pillow to improve your sleep

Myth 2: The older you get, the less sleep you need

As we age, we might think that we need less sleep, but this is a common misconception.

"In fact, older people may simply have more difficulty getting the sleep they need," Dr Patel explained. "This can happen for several reasons, including the fact that our body clocks can change with age, meaning we are more likely to wake up early.

"Furthermore, research has shown that the quality of sleep we get also changes as we get older, meaning that less time may be spent in deep stages of sleep which may increase the frequency of nighttime waking. Health conditions that cause bodily discomfort can also contribute to this, making it difficult for older people to sleep through the night."

Myth 3: Loud snoring is normal

We might be used to our partner snoring, but very loud snoring might indicate a deeper underlying issue, such as sleep apnoea. Signs of sleep apnoea include loud snoring broken up by pauses in breathing and loud snorts or gasps. The condition can limit oxygen flow to the body.

"If you suspect you or your partner may be suffering from sleep apnoea or you noticed changes in their breathing at night, contact your primary healthcare provider to discuss your next steps. Some patients are able to reduce their sleep apnea using ‘positive airway pressure’ (PAP) devices designed to keep breathing airways open."

Myth 4: Alcohol helps you sleep

While drinking alcohol might make you feel sleepy, it can actually affect the quality of your sleep for the worse, which can result in you feeling more tired and sluggish.

"This is because drinking disrupts your sleep cycle, suppressing the onset of REM sleep," Dr Patel explained.

"Some people may find alcohol helps them get to sleep initially as it has a sedative effect, but this is outweighed by the negative effect on sleep quality through the night.

"In order to allow your body enough time to metabolise the alcohol before you sleep, it is recommended to avoid drinking at least four hours before you go to bed. If you do plan to have a drink later in the evening, try to keep your alcohol intake as low as possible to avoid large amounts of sleep disruption."

Myth 5: You can never sleep too much

Sorry, sleep lovers - you can actually get too much sleep. Dr Patel said: "Research shows that both sleeping too much and sleeping too little can raise the risk of diseases, such as coronary heart disease, diabetes, anxiety and obesity in adults aged 45 and older. If you find yourself feeling tired during the day despite sleeping 10 hours or more per night, you might be at risk of hypersomnia. Consider contacting your GP for further advice."

A man has just woken up in a domestic environment, either a living room or a bedroom. He is cozy in duvets and pillows. He rubs his eyes and face sleepily as he comes to.
Sleeping too much might leave you feeling overtired and groggy. (Getty Images)

Myth 6: Stay in bed even if you can’t fall asleep

If you’re struggling to fall asleep, getting out of bed seems like the last thing you should do. But staying in bed could lead to adverse associations when it comes to sleeping, Dr Patel said.

"If you find yourself having difficulty getting to sleep, try getting out of bed and doing something relaxing, such as reading a book, meditating or listening to calming music.

"Stressing too much about not being able to sleep can make the problem even worse, as it raises levels of adrenaline and keeps the brain stimulated."

Myth 7: Long naps help you feel more refreshed

Some studies have shown that taking regular naps during the day can be beneficial to your health. But a long nap doesn’t necessarily mean more rest, and can even make you feel worse.

Instead, 20-minute naps are ideal, Dr Patel said. "Medium-length naps of around 45 minutes can be problematic because you will likely wake up during slow-wave sleep, the deepest stage, which can leave you with that groggy feeling - called sleep inertia - when you wake up."

Myth 8: Cheese before bed will give you nightmares

We’ve heard it all before - eating too much cheese before you go to bed is a sure-fire way to have nightmares. But, much to the joy of cheese fans, this isn’t the case.

"Despite the rumour, there is no current evidence to support the idea that eating cheese directly results in the experience of nightmares," Dr Patel said. But it’s not all good news, as she added: "However, studies show that eating foods high in fat or protein late at night, such as cheese or meats, can disrupt REM sleep (the kind of sleep where we experience the most intense dreams).

Woman holding cheese plate with honey, grissini and grapes on grey background, closeup
Eating cheese before you sleep won't give you nightmares - but it doesn't mean a good night's sleep either. (Getty Images)

"This disruption often occurs because fatty or protein-rich foods generally take more time to break down and their digestion can cause you to wake up during the night. Waking up more frequently also means we’re more likely to remember our dreams, which may be where the link between cheese and nightmares was established."

Myth 9: Sleep-talkers always tell the truth

If you’ve ever heard someone talking in their sleep, you might be tempted to think they’re telling you their deepest secrets. But in actual fact, it’s likely gibberish.

"While most sleep-talking consists of unintelligible groans or murmurs, sometimes people may speak in fully-formed phrases. In the same way that dreams often consist of untrue elements, sleep-talking does as well, so don’t dwell on anything you hear a friend or partner saying whilst they're asleep!"

Myth 10: Waking a sleepwalker is dangerous

This is a common belief and makes people afraid of waking others who sleep-walk for fear they will harm themselves or others. But Dr Patel said all you have to do is be gentle with them.

"The idea that waking a sleepwalker will cause serious damage is a myth, however it is generally recommended to guide them back to bed as gently as possible, as waking up suddenly could cause distress or sudden bursts of anger."

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