Sleep

Daniel Craig, Senior Physiologist at AXA Health

11 common sleep myths debunked

Sleep

6 July 2021

Getting a good night’s sleep is a hugely important part of finding our feelgood health and plays a key role in our physical health too. But for some of us, sleep can be a struggle, with 40% of people struggling with sleep issues [1]. Getting enough good quality sleep can be a real challenge and end up causing us stress, which itself can make it harder to get to sleep and stay asleep for as long as we need. 

Pair our sleep problems with the many, sometimes conflicting, messages that claim to help us sleep and it can be a bit of a minefield, not least because there’s no one simple answer that works for everyone. So, to help bust some myths, we asked AXA Health Senior Physiologist Dan Craig to sort fact from fiction, leaving you with some useful information to (hopefully) help you get some proper shut eye.

1. You need 8 hours sleep a night

The 8-hour ‘golden rule’ of sleep, may work for some, but the fact is the amount of sleep we need varies from person to person and also across different life stages. The key thing to remember here is how much your sleep impacts you during the day, if at all. If you sleep for 6 hours a night but can manage your day normally with good levels of energy, and not feel fatigued or in need of an afternoon nap, then this amount is likely sufficient for you. If you’re experiencing any issues, such as difficulty concentrating or lethargy during the day as a result of poor quality of sleep, then it’s time to consider what you can do to improve it.

2. Exercise before bed is good/bad for you

In almost all cases, exercise of any form is always good for us and should be a part of our every day routine, be that going for a stroll around the block or resistance training. However, exercising intensely in the time leading up to bedtime could be impacting your ability to sleep properly. This is because your body and brain remain very active for a few hours after you’ve stopped exercising. So, if you’re trying to get to sleep straight after an intense training session, this is why it can be difficult. Consider if it’s possible to do the intense training earlier in the day if you find this is disrupting your ability to fall asleep, and keep lower impact exercise such as yoga or a walk for when you can only fit it in nearer bedtime.

3. Don’t drink caffeine after lunch

Caffeine is a difficult chemical for our bodies to deal with. It hangs around for up to 10 hours and works to keep your nervous system stimulated. So, keeping away from high levels of caffeine later in the day can be beneficial if you’re looking to improve your sleep quality. Or, to keep the hot drink ritual, simply opt for a decaf or caffeine-free option like camomile. 

4. An afternoon nap is good for you

If you work on alternating shift patterns, especially ones that involve night shifts, then napping may benefit you. However, for most people that do not work these types of routine, it’s important we’re able to work up the tiredness during the day and sleep properly throughout the night. Sleep is our only way of dealing with tiredness! If you do take a nap during the day, try to ensure it’s not longer than 15-20 minutes – any longer and they could interfere with your sleep that night and may well leave you feeling groggy when you wake up [3]. 

5. Cheese before bed gives you nightmares

Eating a meal, especially a large one, just before bed will likely impact your ability to sleep properly. This is because, in the hours after you’ve consumed a meal, your body is working hard to digest and metabolise the food. This is something we want to avoid if possible, to allow ourselves to get to sleep more easily. Any large meal, or meals particularly high in protein, eaten before bed might be a hindrance to your overall sleep quality! 

However, there’s no evidence to suggest that cheese on its own will give you nightmares! So, don’t worry about this one. 

6. Listening to waterfalls/white noise helps you sleep

This is a very subjective one. For some, absolute silence is required to sleep soundly. For others, a certain level of background noise is soothing and comforting. Sleep is a deeply psychological behaviour, so one size does not fit all. If you’re struggling to sleep, it’s worth experimenting with background noise, or even try ear plugs to help cut it out. Ultimately if you find an approach that works for you, and you sleep throughout the night soundly, then keep on doing it!  

7. Lavender helps you sleep

Certain types of products that contain lavender have gained popularity recently as aids to relaxation and sleep and while lavender smells lovely, it likely doesn’t contain any sleep-inducing properties in itself. However, the pre-bedtime ritual is often an important one to consider as you are winding down towards sleep, and studies in children and mothers of young children suggest a routine as being important [2]. Lots of people report that this is something that helps them feel relaxed, however there’s no evidence to suggest it physically improves our sleep quality. 

8. Renew your mattress every 2 years

Unless your mattress is already showing signs of disrepair after 2 years, you shouldn’t need to do this so often. In fact, most recommendations hover between 6 and 8 years to replace a mattress. It’s helpful to keep an eye on whether it’s actually becoming uncomfortable for you, or if you wake up with aches and pains. If this is the case, it might be time to consider replacing it. Don’t shy away from this one, as research has shown that swapping an uncomfortable bed for a new one led to almost an hour of extra sleep a night [3]. We spend a third of our lives sleeping on it – it’s worth investing in!

9. A shower before bed helps you sleep

A shower is a great way to feel relaxed and clean in the evening before bedtime. A warm shower, taken an hour or so before bed, may help you to improve your sleep – if it needs improving in the first place. However, there is limited evidence to support this as a recommendable tool for all. If you do shower before bed, make sure it’s not too hot. This won’t help your core body temperature to drop, which is an important part of the falling asleep process.

10. Sleeping in on weekend is bad for your sleep cycle 

It’s an easy one to forget, but our body doesn’t know the difference between a Friday and a Saturday, because at a physiological level, we are beings rooted in routine. We all have a strong sense of rhythmicity, and it’s important we can work to those cues in order to sleep well. 

Sleeping in on a weekend morning is a lovely thing and will not cause you any harm. However, try to keep a good routine, most of the time. Go to bed only when you are sleepy and wake up at roughly the same time.

11. When you’re overtired, you can’t sleep

If you’ve ever travelled across time zones, you’ll be very familiar with the feeling of being jetlagged. This is where your circadian rhythm (your body clock), is out of sync. It may be 5pm where you are, but your body thinks it’s bedtime! The same process happens when you’re sleep deprived. You’re tired but feel awake and groggy all at the same time. You will likely find that when you do sleep, you sleep for slightly longer than normal. This is your body’s way of trying to re-align itself. It’s important to pay close attention to your own cues (when do you feel tired and ready to sleep), and work towards a better or more normal routine again.

It can be a real challenge to get enough good quality sleep, but by being aware of what does, and doesn’t, impact you means you have the best chance of being able to drift off and tackle each day feeling your best. Be sure to check out our sleep hub for more tips and tricks from our team of health experts.

References

[1] - Home - The Sleep Council

[2] - Mindell, J et al. A nightly bedtime routine: impact on sleep in young children and maternal mood. 2009

[3] - FAQs - The Sleep Charity

Further resources

Health benefits of sleep - AXA Health

10 top tips for a better night's sleep - AXA Health

How diet affects sleep - AXA Health

Tips to help you sleep through the night at any age - AXA Health

7 Steps to a better night's sleep - The Sleep Council

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