Sleep experts debunk 13 more sleep myths


Following is a transcript of the video.

Rebecca Robbins: “Hitting snooze will give you extra meaningful rest.”

Robbins: Hitting the snooze bar is one of the worst things you can do.

Girardin Jean-Louis: “Sleeping positions don’t matter.”

Robbins: Now, wrong. Sleeping positions absolutely do matter.

Jean-Louis: “If you snore, you have sleep apnea.”

Jean-Louis: This one is critically important to all sleep physicians.

Jean-Louis: Hi, my name is Girardin Jean-Louis. I’m a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, and my work focuses primarily on circadian and sleep health.

Robbins: And I’m Rebecca Robbins. I’m an instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School and associate scientist at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital. In my research, I design behavioral interventions to give individuals the tools to improve their sleep and their health.

Robbins: And today, we’re making an effort to debunk some common myths about sleep.

Robbins: “It’s better to be a morning person than a night owl.”

Robbins: So, one isn’t better than the other.

Jean-Louis: We do have in our society both night owls and larks. There’s no question about that. Both of them do very well in terms of their own personal livelihood. The difference is that, for personal happiness, to be a morning person, because of the way society is structured, they tend to do much better.

Robbins: We have sayings like “the early bird gets the worm,” and unfortunately that’s to the detriment, often, of evening people. They really live in a morning person’s world and often are forced to work on a morning person’s schedule.

Jean-Louis: So, what we hope to see happen is that people become aware of the kind of person they are. If you happen to be a morning person, do know that your performance is going to be much better in the morning. If you’re an evening person, your performance is going to be much better during the evening hours.

Jean-Louis: “Sleeping positions don’t matter.”

Robbins: Now, wrong. Sleeping positions absolutely do matter. We all, believe it or not, spend most of our time in one of three positions. Most people are side sleepers. The next most common is your back, and the least common is sleeping on your stomach. The key thing when it comes to sleeping positions is to make sure that your spinal column is aligned and you are supported over the course of your sleep at night in your preferred position.

Jean-Louis: I would only add that if you happen to be somebody who has positional sleep apnea, the position at which you sleep does matter, because if you are sleeping in a supine position, it’s more difficult for you to breathe, therefore you snore a little louder, and your bed partner may not really appreciate that.

Robbins: Now, pregnancy is a time where your sleeping positions also really matter. During pregnancy, you want to make sure you’re comfortable and ideally on your side, so that the belly isn’t compressing down on top of you and that the baby’s protected. But the key thing for pregnant people is you want to be comfortable. In whatever position you take, make sure that you are supported with lots of cozy pillows.

Jean-Louis: “The cure for jet lag is not sleeping all night.”

Robbins: One of the common things that we hear people say is often, “I’ll just stay up all night, and I’ll cure jet lag.” And, of course, that’s not a cure for jet lag. You’re just sleep-depriving yourself so significantly that of course you will fall asleep at any time the next day. There really is no cure for jet lag, but you can cope with some of the consequences by making sure to walk outside in your new time zone as much as possible, get natural light exposure.

Jean-Louis: If you’re traveling east, do not wait until you get there and try to sleep-deprive yourself. You can start to prepare ahead of time. So if you’re going to be going to Paris, you know it’s about five hours away. So what do you do? You begin to shift your schedule progressively, maybe four or five days before, so that by the time you get to Paris, you are already in the Paris time zone.

Robbins: And try to avoid alcohol. Sometimes that can interfere with your ability to get healthy sleep.

Jean-Louis: Avoid any type of stimulant. Give yourself a few days. You will adjust naturally.

Robbins: “Hitting snooze will give you extra meaningful rest.”

Jean-Louis: This is actually a myth.

Robbins: Hitting the snooze bar is one of the worst things you can do, because what you’re doing is you’re robbing yourself of some of the best sleep. In the second half of the night is when we have most of our rapid-eye-movement sleep, and that’s where we get a lot of the benefits cognitively of our sleep. So if you’re hitting your snooze bar one or two or three or, worse, more times, you’re interrupting some of that really valuable sleep when it comes to the standpoint of our cognition.

Jean-Louis: Sleep fragmentation is really not good, because it leads to all kinds of psychological problem as well as physical problem. If you are sleep-fragmented, then you are more likely to have cardio-metabolic dysfunctions, and your mood is not as positive as it should be.

Robbins: Instead of hitting the snooze bar, the best thing is to sleep as late as you possibly can. If you have to go to the office at 8 o’clock and it takes you an hour to get ready, set your alarm clock for 7 o’clock and commit to not snoozing. Get up at 7 o’clock and go about your day.

Jean-Louis: So if you find yourself having to hit the snooze button, it tells you you really need to have a much longer period of sleep. So you may have to think about your lifestyle and see how can you incorporate more sleep in your daily routine.

Robbins: “Napping makes up for lack of sleep at night.”

Jean-Louis: Napping is an interesting concept in our field. It does have its merit. It also has some of its drawbacks.

Robbins: The ideal duration for a nap is actually about 20 minutes, so it’s quite short. So make sure to set an alarm, so you don’t sleep too long, which will cause you to wake up groggy and might affect your sleep that night.

Jean-Louis: If you’ve already had your seven hours, which is your core sleep needs, there’s no point trying to do more. In fact, if you’re trying to do more, you could develop insomnia because of that.

Jean-Louis: “Taking melatonin will make you fall asleep immediately.”

Robbins: It’s not going to be something that knocks you out right away. Melatonin, we call it a neurotransmitter. It’s secreted in the brain. It’s associated with the transition to darkness in our environment. And ideally, melatonin is a naturally occurring process, but melatonin can also be taken exogenously or as a supplement.

Jean-Louis: If you’re taking short-acting melatonin substances, it’s highly recommended you do that about two to four hours before bedtime, certainly not right before you go to bed. It takes a while before it becomes effective.

Robbins: Most of the melatonin that’s available over the counter isn’t highly regulated, so unfortunately we don’t know its purity. The other key thing is many people take far too much. So often you go to the drugstore and you see 10 milligrams, 20 milligrams of melatonin. That’s far, far too much. Much smaller doses are important.

Jean-Louis: You will want to talk to your physician to make sure that you pick the right type of melatonin for the problem that you’re having.

Jean-Louis: “If you pull an all-nighter, sleep as soon as possible.”

Robbins: Now, hopefully you’re not pulling all-nighters, because, again, sleep is so important night in and night out. But if you did get a night of either very insufficient sleep or maybe no sleep at all, this is a myth, in some ways, because we don’t want to just binge-sleep as soon as you’re absolutely able to. What you want to do is actually get back to your normal routine as fast as possible. So that means maybe trying to push through the day and wait until your regular bedtime, maybe taking a nap in the afternoon if you’re tired, but trying to get back on your normal schedule as soon as possible, not necessarily sleep as soon as possible.

Jean-Louis: That’s an excellent point. I would only add that, if you happen to be a young person, that’s really true, a couple of days before you’re back on schedule. But if you happen to be an older person in your 60s and 70s, it could take you up to a week to recover. So you have to think about, what am I doing? Do I have to do that? Because there’s a price to pay, particularly if you happen to be an older person.

Jean-Louis: “Dreams only last for a few seconds.”

Robbins: Now, dreams don’t only last for a couple seconds. They can be a couple seconds, they can be a couple minutes, and they can be longer.

Jean-Louis: We all dream four to five times a night.

Robbins: And it happens predominantly in rapid-eye-movement sleep. We believe about 80% of dreaming takes place then.

Jean-Louis: You could have a dream episode that lasts about five seconds, and when you are recounting what actually took place during the night, you feel as if you had this dream for, like, two, three hours. You could also have a dream that lasted 10 minutes, and then you feel it really should have been about five seconds. It has to do with the emotional content of the dream. And, in fact, most people remember their dreams because of the thing that they see. If you see a loved one die in a car accident, you’re going to remember this.

Robbins: There is no precise duration of dreams. We know less about their quantity and length. But what we do encourage is to have fun with your dreams. Talk to a loved one. Maybe keep a dream journal.

Jean-Louis: “If you snore, you have sleep apnea.”

Robbins: Now, snoring is one of the most common symptoms of a condition called obstructive sleep apnea, which is life-threatening, but the snoring doesn’t necessarily mean that you absolutely have this condition. Many people snore and are completely healthy.

Jean-Louis: Essentially, snoring or sleep apnea is really a mechanical problem. That is, because of the excess weight on the upper airway, you put too much pressure on your throat, therefore the airway collapses either fully or partially. That’s what snoring really is. It’s you making an effort trying to keep the upper airway open.

Robbins: But if that snoring is coupled with excessive daytime sleepiness or if you’ve ever been told that you wake up over the course of the night or stop breathing or gasp for air, those could be signs of sleep apnea.

Jean-Louis: Sleep apnea is a very serious problem. Some people can actually die in their sleep. This one is critically important to all sleep physicians. We do not want one more person to die of a heart attack or a stroke because of a problem they could have fixed. So you really have to understand, if that cardinal symptom of snoring shows up, talk to a physician to make sure that you don’t have sleep apnea. And if you do, we can actually help you breathe better, sleep better, therefore have a very productive and long life.

Robbins: “Insomnia means you can’t fall asleep.”

Jean-Louis: It’s partly true, partly not so true. If you happen to be somebody who can’t fall asleep fast enough, then you have what we call sleep-onset insomnia, which is true. But you also have the other one, which is that you fall asleep OK but you wake up multiple times throughout the night and you cannot go back to sleep. That’s sleep-maintenance insomnia.

Robbins: Now, insomnia is best treated with a healthcare provider, and there are pharmacological treatments, but there are actually behavioral treatments that are incredibly effective, and that’s called cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia.

Jean-Louis: So if you are not sure what to do, we could contact your sleep physician. They’ll be able to guide you.

Jean-Louis: “If you can fall asleep anywhere and at any time, it means you’re a ‘good sleeper.'”

Robbins: Now, this most definitely is a myth. Believe it or not, it actually takes time to fall asleep. The hallmark of a healthy sleeper is actually what we call sleep latency, or the time it takes you to fall asleep of about 15 or 20 minutes. If you’re falling asleep right away, it generally is a sign that you’re not getting enough sleep.

Jean-Louis: A good sleeper really is a person who can function throughout the day, not fall asleep at inappropriate circumstances. Most people need about seven to eight hours to function optimally. But the fact that somebody might be a short sleeper, five, six hours, if they’re functioning optimally during the day, they can go home and spend time with the family, walk the dog, play with the cat, then that person is a good sleeper. But if you find that you’re sleeping five hours, when you’re at work you’re falling asleep, you can’t function properly, your mood is not what it’s supposed to be, then you need to get a bit more sleep.

Robbins: “More sleep is always better.”

Robbins: Now, this is a myth. More sleep is not always better, because in addition to getting sufficient duration, when it comes to sleep, consistency is critical. So if you look at maybe sleeping in or extending your regular sleep times well beyond what you typically keep, then that’s going to throw your internal biological or circadian rhythm completely out of whack. So instead of sleeping in on the weekends or maybe binge-sleeping, the ideal thing is to get onto a schedule and try to keep it as close to Monday through Monday as possible.

Jean-Louis: What we don’t want people to do is to feel, “I have to sleep eight hours.” If you’re physiological for seven, then that’s perfectly fine. If it’s six, that’s perfectly fine. The question is, is it optimal for you?

Robbins: “Nightmares and night terrors are the same.”

Robbins: Now, these two things are distinct. A nightmare is, of course, a disturbing dream, and a night terror is actually something that we call a parasomnia, which refers to abnormal behavior that occurs during sleep. But it largely happens in children and does generally go away around puberty. Now, there are similarities with these two things, but the one difference is that a night terror can be very disturbing for the person who isn’t sleeping to observe in a sleeper. Anyone experiencing night terrors is thrashing about violently, and so it can be a little bit disturbing to watch.

Jean-Louis: Nightmares tend to be a resultant of things you have been exposed to during the day. If you had watched a horror movie, some of those mentations can carry on during the night episode. If you happen to be under significant stress, you’re not doing so well at work, all of those can cause nightmares.

Robbins: One exception is the environment. We find experimentally, when we manipulate the temperature, so we put sleepers under a heat blanket so we can make sure that they’re nice and toasty, we actually see that their sleep fragmentation increases and the reports of nightmares as well. So make sure that your bedroom is on the cooler side. We generally recommend about 68 degrees Fahrenheit for an optimal sleeping temperature.

Jean-Louis: Those sleep myths we talked about, maybe there are more, but at least for now we know these are the ones that are counterproductive to our health and well-being. Let’s all have a good night’s sleep.

Robbins: Are we ready?

Jean-Louis: Go ahead. Yeah, yeah.

Robbins: All right. [rips paper]

Jean-Louis: You’ve got to throw it up.

Robbins: Should we both? Do you want some of these?

Jean-Louis: No, you do it. You throw it. There we go.

[Robbins laughs]