Q&A Sleep Myths
By James B. Maas, Ph.D.
- Does the brain rest during sleep?
Most people thought of sleep as a passive, dormant part of our daily lives. By using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) researchers have evidenced that neurons in the brainstem, which connects the brain with the spinal cord, produce neurotransmitters such as serotonin and norepinephrine that keep some parts of the brain active while we are awake. So, contrary to popular belief, the brain is most active during the night!
- Does sleep affect weight loss?
By adding 1 extra hour of sleep per night, you can lose up to 1 lb per week. In addition, it reduces the risk of developing a sleep-related eating disorder (SRED).
- Can I condition myself to need less sleep?
You cannot condition yourself to need more sleep – it is hard-wired! It is best to establish a regular sleep/wake schedule in order to regulate your body and determine its needs.
- Does a boring meeting, warm room, or low dose of alcohol makes you sleepy?
It’s true that a boring meeting, warm room, or low dose of alcohol can make you sleepy if you are sleep deprived!
- Is snoring harmful?
Snoring can be life threatening. The respiratory passages collapse and become constricted, stopping airflow to the lungs. These pauses can last up to 10 seconds and may occur 700 times throughout the night. Because you’re waking up each time to resume breathing, you can see why you’re so tired the next day. 18% of the adult population has sleep apnea, and 95% of them don’t know it. The more overweight you are, the more likely it is that you will have sleep apnea.
- Does everyone dream?
Yes, everyone does dream at night, although most do not remember their dreams. Most dreams occur during a critical point in the night called REM sleep. If you sleep for 8 hours, you’ll dream 3-5 times, spending about 100 minutes in your theater of the night. Dreams, which occur about every 90 minutes during sleep, typically last from 9 minutes to as long as 30 minutes or more. They may include visual imagery and sensations of taste, smell, hearing, or pain.
- Do I need less sleep as I age?
As you age, the ability to sleep does diminish. The truth is that the best predictor of longevity is sleep. That is, good sleep helps us stay younger longer!
- Are most people a good judge of how sleepy they are?
No; and not because people want to lie about how much they sleep (or don’t!), but simply because they do not know. A study found that students overestimated how much they were sleeping by 47 minutes!
- What’s the deal with drowsy driving?
Raising the volume of the radio, air conditioning or drinking coffee will not help you stay awake while driving. If you experience drowsiness while behind the wheel, the best thing to do is to pull over in a safe area and take a 15-20 minute power nap.
- Sleep disorders are mainly due to worry or psychological problems.
Sleep disorders can have many causes, ranging from physical (hormonal fluctuations or pain) to psychological (anxiety or depression) to situational (noise or jetlag). Even factors such as age and gender can predispose you to a disorder.
- Do most sleep disorders eventually go away without treatment?
No. If you’re routinely robbed of a good night’s rest, you may have a sleep disorder. Try to determine your symptoms and their frequency. If your family doctor’s suggested remedies don’t improve your sleep after a reasonable period, or if your main problem is daytime sleepiness, ask for a referral to a sleep-disorders center for an evaluation.
- Who needs more sleep…men or women?
Women generally need more sleep than men to by fully alert during the day.
- Can you learn while you sleep?
Learning ability, memory consolidation, creativity, and problem-solving are all severely compromised by even a little sleep loss. To the contrary, those who are most productive and prosperous are the ones who are well rested. No doubt about it, the best brain food is a good night’s rest.
- Should insomniacs take long naps during the day?
No. Insomniacs often associate their bed with sleeplessness so the goal is to make the bedroom into a distraction- and angst-free sanctuary that is designed for one thing: peaceful sleep. People with insomnia should try to stay up until they’re so tired that they fall asleep immediately when their head hits the pillow. This is done for a few nights, and then bedtime is gradually moved up.
- When is the best time to exercise?
Your core body temperature, which is linked to your circadian rhythm, fluctuates naturally throughout the day. Synchronizing workouts and competitive events with the peaks in these temperature cycles is one secret to enhancing performance. Avoid strenuous morning exercise and nighttime workouts. A late-afternoon workout is ideal.
- How does sex affect sleep?
Yes, sex can actually make it easier to fall asleep. This is mostly because of the hormones that are released during the act. Sex boosts oxytocin (a hormone that makes you feel connected to your partner) and lowers cortisol (a stress-related hormone). Plus, having an orgasm releases a hormone called prolactin, which makes you feel relaxed and sleepy. All of that leads up to a nice, drowsy state that’s perfect for cuddling up and falling asleep. In sum, sex may enhance sleep by promoting relaxation, deeper sleep, and hormone production.
- A sound sleeper rarely moves during the night.
False. Everyone moves around somewhat during sleep, and these movements are coordinated with certain points in the sleep cycle. Even if you fall asleep and wake up in the same position, chances are you’ve tossed and turned as many as 60 times during the night. Movements often mark the transition periods between sleep stages.
- Blind women have 50% less breast cancer than sighted women.
Dr. Richard G. Stevens, Cancer Epidemiologist and professor at the University of Connecticut Health Center says, “Melatonin needs darkness, if its dark melatonin rises … more light at night, less sleep, and less melatonin increases the risk of breast cancer”. Melatonin works as a powerful antioxidant, which is thought to fight off cancer cells. Melatonin may also reduce the production of estrogen in the body, so with light interrupting the release of melatonin, estrogen levels rise, and too much estrogen heightens the growth of breast cancer.
- How does a glass of wine before bed affect sleep?
Avoid all alcohol within 3 hours of bedtime. Not only does regular drinking weaken the immune system, but it also disturbs REM sleep and can cause awakens if only because of frequent urination.
- Should high schools start later than elementary schools?
It is a common misperception that later school-start times entice teens to stay up later at night. At schools where later start-times have been implemented the results have been overwhelmingly positive: grades rose, athletic records improved, 17% more hot breakfasts consumed, teachers reported an increase in alertness, engagement, and mood and furthermore, visits to the health center were down 20% in a year.
- How do teenagers differ in their need for sleep?
According to Dr. Charles Czeisler at Harvard University, the teenage brain is biologically set to fall asleep at 3:00 AM and begin to awaken sometime after 11:00 AM. Using daylight-spectrum lighting will help give signals to the brain when it is time to sleep and awaken. It would also be helpful to establish a pre-bed ritual and stick to that routine in order to trick your body to feeling sleepier.
- Does a mattress affect how you sleep?
The right mattress can make a world of difference! Dr. Maas recommends the Paramount Sleep HD Mattress. Make sure the bed is big enough in size if there is more than one person sleeping in it and that the mattress has individually pocketed coils. In addition, sheets and pillows are just as important. Make sure you try products out in a store instead of getting bogged down by product claims. The best pillows are in United Feather & Down’s Dr. Maas Collection. Be willing to spend what it takes to ensure a quality sleep!
- Can I catch up on my sleep on the weekends?
No. It is critical to establish a normal sleep/wake schedule. There should be no difference between weekdays and weekends. In fact, such a yo-yo sleep schedule will throw your internal clock even more out of whack.
- Is it normal to wake up several times throughout the night?
Yes, it is normal; however, it is not normal to stay awake longer than 20 minutes during the night; this is considered insomnia.
- Do heavy blankets help you fall asleep faster?
No. Although they may be cozy on a cold night, heavy blankets can affect the body temperature during sleep. To ensure a quality night’s rest, keep the room temperature between 65-68 degrees Fahrenheit.
- I can fall asleep in 5 minutes! That’s a good thing…right?
Unfortunately, no. Although many people boast their ability to fall asleep instantly, this is actually a sign of severe sleep deprivation.
- How important is an alarm clock?
If you are a great sleeper, you should never need an alarm clock to wake up. Instead, use an alarm clock to set a time to remind you when to fall asleep. This should be about 8 hours prior to the time you need to awaken.
- What is the effectiveness of sleeping pills?
Sleeping pills are hazardous to your health and can kill you. If you are interested in a supplement, try PowerOff, which includes natural ingredients that can safely be used as a sleeping aide.
- Can you improve your athletic skills overnight simply by sleeping?
Yes! With the proper amount of sleep, a number of important things can happen: glucose metabolism increases, resulting in more energy; cortisol levels decline, reducing stress; growth hormone levels increase, benefiting muscles and bone development; and cognition, reaction time, coordination and recovery speed all improve.
- How much do people usually overestimate their amount of sleep?
Approximately 45 minutes
Dr. James B. Maas is a sleep educator/researcher who helped develop the Dr. Maas Sleep for Success line of pillows and comforters for United Feather and Down. He served for 48 years as professor, chair of Psychology and Weiss Presidential Fellow at Cornell University. He lectured about sleep to more than 65,000 undergraduates, several of whom are now sleep doctors.