Sleep is a mysterious and sometimes elusive process. It's often not there when you need it, and it rarely ends the way you would like. The facts behind getting more, better and healthier sleep are often subject to misunderstanding and misinformation. We looked at some of the more persistent myths relating to sleep and the truth behind them.
The "rule" about everyone needing eight hours of sleep is a little misleading. Most people need between seven and nine hours. But the idea that some people — famously Bill Clinton and Margaret Thatcher — have trained themselves to need less is somewhat fallacious, too. According to Dr. Thomas Roth, sleep researcher at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, it might be that they're "just not aware of how sleepy they are." Cutting back on sleep can mean obesity, high blood pressure and mood swings, as well as poor performance at work, home and behind the wheel.
The harmful effects of missing sleep can be difficult to undo. According to research published in 2010, although a good, restorative night's sleep can help you get back on track, the effects may not last more than a few hours. Dr. Daniel Cohen, a researcher in the Division of Sleep Medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital, says: "Many people have a false sense of reassurance that they can quickly recover from a chronic sleep debt with just one or two days of good sleep." The body's circadian rhythm prefers regularity — allowing it recovery time in fits and starts can do more harm than good.
Although yawning and bedtime typically go together, there is no actual evidence that we yawn because we're tired. It used to be said that, because a lack of oxygen can make you drowsy, the yawn is the body's way of taking in extra air, increasing blood oxygen and kick-starting the brain. Research at the University of Vienna has shown, however, that there is no significant increase in oxygen in the blood following a yawn. The yawn has a rather different function. The study showed that increases in brain temperature correspond with outbreaks of yawning and tiredness is known to increase brain temperature. The brain needs to maintain a comfortable environment just like any computer, and the study appears to indicate that the involuntary intake of air is intended to cool it down.
According to a report by the National Sleep Foundation, around 59% of people admit to snoring. It might be true that, for most people, it's reasonably harmless — if you discount getting bashed by your partner's pillow — but snoring can be a symptom of obstructive sleep apnea. This condition causes the muscles in the throat to relax and block the airway. This causes the sufferer to wake up but, left untreated, can reduce blood oxygen levels and put strain on the heart and respiratory systems.
Quite the reverse, in fact. If you're not sleeping properly every night, it suggests a more fundamental problem. Sleep treatments are intended for short-term sleep problems — one-off situations where a particular problem is going to make nodding off more difficult. If your sleep issues are persistent, it's fairly certain you'll need to look a little deeper into what is causing you the problem. Understanding the reasons for your insomnia is fundamental to resolving the issue. Long-term problems are rarely resolved by short-term solutions. In addition, most prescription drugs have inherent dangers — whether it's Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or simply yoga, there is often a better answer out there. Here are some more tips for a better night's rest.
Although sleep patterns do change as we age, it's not generally true that we need less sleep. According to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), older people have a harder time falling asleep and staying that way. Various explanations for this have been offered, including that, as we age, we produce less melatonin, the chemical that induces sleep. According to the NSF, older people experience "sleep fragmentation," in which the natural cycle of sleep is interrupted. Thanks to sleep fragmentation, individuals may find it harder to get to sleep, may wake up more often during the night and nap more during the day. The patterns of sleep shift as we age meaning earlier nights nodding off and earlier mornings getting up. Sounds to us like a plan with no flaws.
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