Scientists Claim These Common Sleep Habits Could Be Harming Your Health

You hop into bed, pull up the covers, and reach for the remote as part of your nightly ritual. Soon enough, you’ll be watching TV and dozing off into a restful sleep – or so you think. As it turns out, this and other common nighttime habits might be affecting your shut-eye and, therefore, harming your health.

A team at the New York University (NYU) School of Medicine, led by Dr. Rebecca Robbins, searched online to find the most common assumptions that people make when it comes to sleep. From 8,000 websites, they narrowed the field down to the top 20 assertions. Then, they got to work.

The NYU team then researched all 20 of the sleep-related assumptions to see which were true and which were false. They finished by analyzing whether the myths could be damaging people’s health. And, according to The Sun, Robbins knew that was an important job – and the results of her study could be very surprising, depending on how you sleep.

ADVERTISEMENT

What do you believe to be true about sleep? At the bare minimum, you know that sleep is essential to your health. Scientists have yet to discover why we sleep, but they know it’s a vital part of our daily lives. Plus, they have discovered a slew of benefits that come to us when we sleep well.

As one example, sleep might be the time during which our brains analyze and consolidate all of our new memories. One study at the University of California showed participants a series of patterns either in the morning or at night. Those who saw the patterns at night got to sleep afterward, while those who learned them in the morning stayed awake for the rest of the day.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Tetra Images/Getty Images

Researchers brought back both groups to see who remembered the sequences they had previously seen. As it turned out, those who slept recalled the patterns with more accuracy than those who hadn’t gotten any shut-eye. As such, improved memory could be one benefit of sleep – and that’s just one good thing it may provide.!–nextpage–>

Image: Rakop Tanyakam/EyeEm/Getty Images

There’s a laundry list of good things that sleep does for one’s health. For instance, when a person gets ample sleep, their body can more effectively fight weight-gain than those who don’t snooze enough. What’s more, various studies have linked poor-quality rest to depression, reduced immune function and impaired levels of concentration.

ADVERTISEMENT

Aside from the proven truths about our daily sleep, plenty of myths exist when it comes to catching Zs. According to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), some beliefs can be harmless, but others can also be detrimental. Its website states, “Sometimes they can be characterized as ‘old wives’ tales,’ but there are other times the incorrect information can be serious and even dangerous.”

ADVERTISEMENT

For instance, the NSF debunks the myth that simply lowering a window can keep a drowsy driver awake behind the wheel. The solution to this problem is, of course, sleep. It suggests pulling over and taking a 15- to 45-minute power nap. Other remedies don’t help, and can mean a driver’s distracted by their sleepiness, therefore driving dangerously.

ADVERTISEMENT

The NSF has also refuted the idea that the only explanation for someone who’s tired during the day is that they didn’t get enough sleep the night before. As it turns out, daytime drowsiness can actually be indicative of a deeper issue. Sometimes, a person who’s tired round-the-clock might have a rest-related disorder, such as sleep apnea, that reduces the quality of their snoozes.

ADVERTISEMENT

Perhaps you find yourself waking up in the middle of the night, unable to get back to sleep? Old-school advice instructs you to lay there and count sheep until you feel drowsy again. Once again, the NSF says this method is just a myth. In fact, it can actually be a distraction as you try to relax.

ADVERTISEMENT

Instead, the experts at the NSF suggest laying in bed for up to 20 minutes, trying to fall asleep naturally. If that doesn’t work, then it suggests getting out of bed and leaving the room. Grab a book or turn on soothing music and relax until drowsiness returns. The last thing you should do, it says, is to look at the clock.

ADVERTISEMENT

Teenagers get a bad rap for their seemingly constant tiredness, too. Specifically, there’s a myth that students within this age bracket come to school and fall asleep because they’re lazy. However, it’s their biological make-up that has them snoozing, namely in their early-morning classes in middle and high school.

ADVERTISEMENT

Teenagers need between eight and ten hours of sleep every night to feel fully energized. Even with that amount of rest, though, their early-morning classes take place during times when their bodies expect to be asleep. So, they might doze off, and it’s nothing they can control: their systems just crave rest.

ADVERTISEMENT

On that note, there’s no such thing as cheating – or making up for – the amount of sleep that you need each night. The NSF’s website states, “When we don’t get adequate sleep, we accumulate a sleep debt that can be difficult to ‘pay back’ if it becomes too big.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Finally, some people believe that adults don’t need as much sleep as younger people. Indeed, the youngest among us require substantially more hours of shut-eye than their older siblings and parents. For instance, newborns should get between 14 and 17 hours of sleep per day, while toddlers need 11 to 14 hours to snooze.

ADVERTISEMENT

As kids grow up, of course, they need less and less sleep. By the time they become young adults – aged 18 to 25 – they require only seven to nine hours of rest every evening. This remains true until they reach their senior years. Those in the 65-and-older age bracket need a bit less sleep than other adults, between seven and eight hours per night.

ADVERTISEMENT

Still, some adults take great advantage of their body’s diminished need for rest. The NSF says that many people wrongfully think that they need fewer hours of shut-eye as older adults. Instead, the organization maintains that sleep patterns may change, but a grown-up’s basic need for adequate rest doesn’t go away.

ADVERTISEMENT

It was all of this sleep-related misinformation that inspired the team at NYU’s School of Medicine to do a bit of research of their own. The group, led by Dr. Robbins, began their research by logging onto the internet. There, they had a look at what people had to say about sleep.

ADVERTISEMENT

The NYU team perused no fewer than 8,000 websites, through which they noted the assumptions that people held about sleep. From there, they created a list of the 20 most commonly-held beliefs about rest. Some of these assertions were true, while others didn’t come with any scientific backing.

ADVERTISEMENT

Speaking to The Sun, Robbins elucidated the reason for 2019 study in straightforward terms. She explained, “Sleep is a vital part of life that affects our productivity, mood and general health and well-being. Dispelling myths about sleep promotes healthier sleep habits which, in turn, promote overall better health.”

ADVERTISEMENT

For starters, Robbins and her team confronted the idea that adults can survive with only five hours of sleep each night. Robbins described to website Business Insider in November 2019, “You might hear people brag about this, saying, ‘Oh I get five, I’m just fine.’ But by and large, we do see those people likely making up for lost sleep on the weekends or in power naps, for instance.”

ADVERTISEMENT

However, Robbins and sleep expert David Rapoport tried to dissuade adults from falling into this lack-of-sleep pattern. Rapoport pointed out, “This is a real problem that the sleep field has been trying to address, and that is that not sleeping has been perceived as a macho thing. It proves how great you are, it proves how manly you are in some cases.”

ADVERTISEMENT

With that, Rapoport concluded, “Sleeping is actually good, and you should sort of be proud of the fact that you sleep to your need.” And Robbins only backed this up with reference to her initial April 2019 analysis, according to The Sun. At that time, she highlighted the problems associated with a severe lack of sleep: these included an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and a potentially shortened lifespan.

ADVERTISEMENT

Another big sleep-related myth had to do with snoring. Namely, the NYU team discovered that the majority of web users thought that the nighttime noise was harmless. Both they and Rapoport took issue with this point of view, too. As he explained to Business Insider, “Loud snoring is actually a sign that there is a blockage in your throat.”

ADVERTISEMENT

In some cases, a blockage can be small, causing a vibration without signaling a deeper health problem. However, some who snore do, indeed, suffer from a more serious ailment. Sleep apnea, for instance, occurs when a larger blockage completely stops the flow of air.

ADVERTISEMENT

As previously mentioned, sleep apnea can ruin a night’s sleep – and it makes sense, considering sufferers choke and stop breathing throughout the evening. As such, Robbins and her NYU team advised that people should pay attention if they or a loved one start snoring loudly. For them, a doctor’s visit, and a take-home treatment, could be in order.

ADVERTISEMENT

Robbins and her team also debunked the idea that a very common nighttime ritual was, indeed, relaxing. Many people flip on the TV and watch programs until they start to doze off to sleep. But the NYU researchers said that this habit could be affecting shut-eye in a negative way.

ADVERTISEMENT

For one thing, watching TV can cause an uptick in one’s stress levels, depending on a particular program’s content. Speaking to The Sun, Robbins explained, “Often if we’re watching the television it’s the nightly news… it’s something that’s going to cause you insomnia or stress right before bed when we’re trying to power down and relax.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Plus, the television casts a glow that can keep you awake, and not just because it’s a distraction. Robbins explained to Business Insider, “If you turn the television on and if it’s close to you, that’s a source of bright-blue light. So, bright light is one of the strongest cues to our circadian rhythm. It kick-starts our body and our brain to become awake and alert in the morning.”

ADVERTISEMENT

So, if you watch TV before bed, the blue light signals your brain to stay awake. Even if you lay down to rest, then, your body won’t usher in sleep. Studies show your brain will take longer to start producing the melatonin it needs to ease into rest. Clearly, falling asleep to TV won’t help you – it will only hurt you in the long run.

ADVERTISEMENT

You won’t sleep well if you drink alcohol before bed, either. The NYU team found that many people poured themselves a nightcap in the hope that booze would help them drift off to sleep. Rapoport acknowledged via Business Insider that the method might actually help people to rest, but it wouldn’t be a solid night of snoozing.

ADVERTISEMENT

Rapoport said, “It is true that it will help you get to sleep, as long as you don’t drink too much. One or two drinks, perhaps. What you do, however, is [disrupt] the normal sleep.” The expert went onto explain how alcohol stops a person’s R.E.M. [Rapid Eye Movement] cycle, during which their eyes move and brain waves mimic those of someone awake.

ADVERTISEMENT

It makes sense, then, that we tend to dream during the R.E.M. phase of our sleep. Waves of R.E.M. occur about every 90 minutes as we snooze, with the first session occuring an hour and a half after we fall asleep. Alcohol shakes up this cycle – namely, it keeps us out of R.E.M. sleep until its effects wear off.

ADVERTISEMENT

Once the booze wears off, though, R.E.M. returns – and often out of its normal rhythm. Rapoport explained, “R.E.M. comes back perhaps at the wrong time, perhaps too strong, and it disrupts things.” He concluded, “It is not generally recommended that alcohol be used as a sleeping pill.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Morning habits can affect sleep, as well. The NYU team found many people online who set multiple alarms to ensure their daily wake-up. Not only that, but they used the timed alerts as an excuse to hit snooze and go back to sleep for a few minutes. Robbins once again said this was a no-no.

ADVERTISEMENT

Robbins implored alarm-setters to heed the first bell instead of dropping off again. She said, “Realize you will be a bit groggy – all of us are – but resist the temptation to snooze.” In doing so, she said while people are giving themselves the chance to fall back to sleep, they won’t be getting high-quality shut-eye.

ADVERTISEMENT

Robbins told Business Insider, “Because if we’re hitting several snooze bars and waiting, I believe it’s nine minutes, and then another nine minutes, all of that incremental sleep is very rarely that.” Plus, drifting in and out in the morning meant that sleepers would affect their R.E.M. cycle, just like nightcap drinkers.

ADVERTISEMENT

Most R.E.M. sleep takes place just before morning anyway, Robbins said. Then, she advised, “Protect that as best you can and set your alarm clock for the latest possible time.” Practicing sleep hygiene – following a strict bedtime and wake-up schedule – can stop a person from snoozing, she advised.

ADVERTISEMENT

In the end, Robbins and her NYU team couldn’t dispel every sleep-related myth, with experts still disagreeing on some particularly prevalent beliefs. For instance, the verdict’s still out when it comes to sleeping in on weekends; some believe it could mess up your weekday wake-ups, while others are of the opinion that you should take as much rest as you need when the opportunity presents itself. Nevertheless, one thing’s for sure no matter what – good sleep is vital, and every adult should do their best to get high-quality shut-eye every night.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT