Scientists Disprove 20 Common Sleep Myths That Keep People Awake at Night

"These just seemed to be passed down in our society from generation to generation." 

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The more we learn about sleep, the more scientists are figuring out how to improve it. We’ve come a long way, but there’s still a lot of bad advice floating around, according to a team of scientists at New York University. In a paper published Tuesday in Sleep Health, they took it upon themselves to find the worst sleep advice on the internet and finally set the record straight.

Rebecca Robbins, Ph.D., a post-doctoral fellow at NYU Langone’s School of Population Health and the paper’s first author, explains that advances in sleep science have helped disprove a lot of anecdotal wisdom.

But the myths still persist.

Working with senior author and NYU psychiatry professor Girardin Jean Louis, Ph.D., Robbins and the other co-authors scoured over 8,000 websites looking for sleep advice. They convened an expert panel of ten sleep scientists, who reviewed the evidence and identified 20 sleep myths. Then, they debunked each of them with scientific evidence.

“These just seemed to be passed down in our society from generation to generation.” Robbins tells Inverse. “As someone reads down this list, we hope that it sparks this kind of lightbulb going off. It’s something you believe to be true, but then you see the evidence to the counter, and that’s an effective mechanism of behavior change.”

Below are the three biggest surprises from the paper.

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Robbins' paper identified 20 common pieces of advice about sleep and presented scientific evidence that proved them wrong. 

More Sleep Is Always Better

Getting the right number of hours of sleep per night is tricky, and this new paper debunks a few myths that give out false estimates for the “right” amount of sleep. Five hours definitely isn’t enough, according to Robbins’ experts. But getting too much sleep isn’t good either. For instance, a 2018 paper in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that sleeping for excessively long hours may be associated with chronic health issues or even heightened risk of death because it may be a sign of underlying health problems.

Robbins explains that there’s a sweet spot for sleep — at least for adults — somewhere between seven and eight hours. But, she adds, it’s more important to keep those hours on a regular schedule. Trying to store up extra sleep on the weekends, she explains isn’t as helpful as it seems.

“That myth has to do with binge-sleeping. If you push your bedtime back, what do we do, we sleep in, to ‘compensate’ for that shorter duration,” Robbins says. “But the best way to deal with that is to get up as close to your normal wake-up time as possible and take a power nap in the afternoon.”

Drinking Alcohol or Watching TV Are Good Ways to Fall Asleep

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Alcohol may put you to sleep, but it won't make staying asleep any easier.

One of the more persistent myths that has to do with falling alseep is the idea of a nightcap, Robbins explains. But this idea didn’t withstand the scrutiny of her experts. Alcohol is a sedative, so it may help someone pass out at the end of the night. However, more evidence suggests that you’ll pay for in the second half of the night by having more disrupted sleep. The National Institutes of Health’s sleep review documents refer to that disruption as a “rebound effect,” which is actually caused by the body breaking down the remaining alcohol.

As far as TV goes, there’s less direct convincing evidence that it’s linked to poor sleep, though the idea that it is helpful for sleep was dubbed a “myth” by Robbins’ panel of experts. Still, there are associations between poor sleep and TV. A 2013 study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that higher binge-TV watching behavior was associated with poor sleep quality and insomnia.

But one thing that does seem to be associated with better sleep quality is exercise, which actually was the center of its own myth debunked in the paper. Though some anecdotal wisdom suggests that evening workouts can negatively impact sleep, more research is proving that exercise in general enhances sleep and that evening workouts won’t impact sleep in a negative way. For instance, one study published in February in Experimental Physiology found that cyclists who performed high intensity workouts at night had no significant differences in sleep quality compared to those who worked out earlier in the day.

The Best Way to Fall Back Asleep Is to Just Lie There

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Blue light exposure from computer or TV screens has been linked to poor sleep quality.

Finally, while TV and alcohol aren’t the best ways to fall back asleep, just trying to shut your eyes and will it to happen isn’t the answer either, reports Robbins’ panel of experts. Instead of lying there and praying for sweet relief, the paper suggests that people who struggle to fall asleep should actually get up and do something else, a practice called stimulus control therapy.

“If you try to will yourself back to sleep if it’s not happening, it will only hurt you in the long term,” Robbins says. “You’ll build up heat in your mattress and in the bedroom, and you’ll start to look at your bed as a stressful place. You want to counteract that by changing the environment and coming back when you’re tired.”

The only rule is to avoid blue light — which has been shown to negatively impact sleep. But otherwise, several studies point to the power of a simple location change.

Actionable Sleep Advice

The whole point of this paper, explains Robbins, wasn’t to throw shade on old wives’ tales that people use to try to get to sleep. This paper is just the beginning of more science-backed sleep advice to come, but she hopes that it can provide helpful ways that people can improve their sleep, based on the best available evidence.

“We hope that this is a tool for promoting reflection about sleep health and changes that our readers might be able to make,” she says.