Thursday, March 10, 2011

7 Myths about Sleep

By Joe Wilkes

Numerous sleep studies over the years have set forth a variety of different theories, often conflicting, regarding the health benefits and costs of getting a good or a bad night's sleep. Some of these studies have called into question or actually disproved certain long-held beliefs regarding sleep (and the lack thereof); here are seven sleep myths and some information that indicates that it might not always be best to believe everything you were told when you were a kid.

  1.  You should get 8 hours of sleep every night. Not exactly. Studies conducted during the last decade show that mortality rates were lowest among those who slept between 6.5 and 7.5 hours a night. People who slept much more or less had more health problems across the board. It was hard to tell why people who slept more had poorer health. There may have been a chicken-and-egg scenario where they may have slept more because they suffered from depression, alcoholism, or other illnesses that caused them to spend more time asleep. On the other hand, the people who didn't get enough sleep were prone to their own health problems, including problems resulting from stress and lack of concentration, alertness, and physical ability—not to mention falling asleep at the wheel.  
  2. You should keep the same bedtime every night. This one's partially true, but there's some wiggle room. While it's preferable to keep a consistent routine and sleep schedule, it's not always possible. Experts now say that if you're a little more stressed out or anxious or just not tired, you're better off staying up than hitting the sack. Our bodies are the best gauge of when we need some shut-eye. Insomniacs often trap themselves into a cycle of anxiety wherein they can't get to sleep for fear of not being able to fall asleep. Instead of forcing yourself into bed at an arbitrary time when you're not tired, spend a little time doing a relaxing activity—reading, listening to music, meditating, taking a hot bath—and then go to bed when you feel like you're ready to lie down and close your eyes. Studies have shown that you're as likely to fall asleep then as when you force yourself to adhere to a self-imposed bedtime—you'll just enjoy the process of relaxing more and will sleep better. 
  3. Burning the midnight oil helps you get more done. Maybe not so much. Haven't we all pulled an all-nighter? It's a grand tradition that many feel provides its own inspiration. I know I'm a self-avowed night owl, and you could never convince me that I could get more done in the morning than in the late hours of the night. But a study from the University of North Texas discovered that undergraduate students who were "morning" people had much higher grade point averages than their nocturnal counterparts. The night owls had significantly impaired concentration during the day and poorer memory. So apparently, "early to bed, early to rise" does "make a man healthy, wealthy, and wise" . . . or at least wise. The jury's still out on the others. 
  4. Exercising before bed will keep you awake. Or, perhaps, exactly the opposite! A Brazilian study showed that while heavy aerobic exercises and anaerobic/strength training exercises had minimal effect on sleep patterns, light to moderate aerobic exercise, like a relaxing walk or a medium aerobic workout, actually helped people sleep better. The old saw about jumping around to "get the blood moving" has actually been proven to work the opposite way. People who engaged in a bit of light exercise before bed fell asleep more quickly and stayed asleep longer than the more sedentary members of the test group. A UCLA study also found that in older adults (59 to 86 years old), a regular tai chi regimen (regardless of when it was practiced) seemed to provide better sleep schedules and fewer sleep disturbances compared to doing no exercise at all.
  5. Sleep is the fountain of youth. Here's one that may actually hold some water. A University of Chicago study has shown a strong correlation between a lack of deep sleep and the physical decline as we age. They studied the level of human growth hormone production in study participants, and found that the people who slept longer in a state of deep sleep produced significantly more of the hormone, which contributes to muscle maintenance and lower body fat. When the participants' sleep was purposely disturbed by the scientists, they produced much less of the hormone. So both the quantity and the quality of the sleep was found to be important in the production of this anti-aging hormone. Just think, if all those baseball players had gotten more good nights' sleep, perhaps they wouldn't be having so many legal troubles.
  6. Insomniacs are more productive. Not quite, as it turns out. A study from the Tufts New England Medical Centre in Boston found that in the four companies (airline, manufacturer, pharmaceutical company, and law firm) with a little over 4,000 total employees, the loss of productivity due to sleep issues added up to about $54 million. Many of these costs were attributed to prescriptions for sleep aids, sleep-related disorders like depression, and safety-related costs due to people falling asleep on the job. The rest had to do with general productivity loss. The study estimated the cost of insomnia as 2-1/2 weeks of productivity annually for every worker.
  7. Spicy food gives you weird dreams. This may actually be true. A team of researchers from Australia found that participants who ate spicy meals before bed took longer to get to sleep and didn't sleep as long or as deeply as those who ate blander dishes. Some of the evidence is attributed to the obvious indigestion that can occur, but the slight elevation in body temperature caused by the zesty food was linked to poor sleep in previous studies. No real conclusions regarding the weird dreams or nightmares of the participants, but suffice it to say, spicy food doesn't equal sweet dreams—or at least not good sleep.


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