The Science of Sleep Part I: Myths and Misconceptions

This article begins a sleep series exploring common misconceptions about healthy sleep habits.

By Kaitlin Meyer — December 12, 2022


The Science of Sleep Part I: Myths and Misconceptions

You glance across to your roommate's bed again. You are seriously considering throwing a pillow at him to stop the snoring or at least to sate your jealousy. Why is it so easy for some people to fall asleep? A small beep echoes from the nightstand. It's your watch, which reads 3 AM. You've tried many things, like wearing your blue light glasses to meditation to melatonin. Nothing helps. You roll over and fire up another episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine. No point in trying to sleep now.

Many college students suffer from sleep deprivation, daytime sleepiness, and various other sleep-related problems. With heavy workloads, packed social schedules, work, and adjusting to living somewhere new, college students are particularly susceptible to sleep problems. These problems can create a vicious cycle by decreasing daily energy levels, performance, and efficiency and pushing those affected to stay up later and sleep less to avoid falling behind.

This article begins a sleep series exploring common misconceptions about healthy sleep habits. While research from the field of sleep science is presented, please remember that we are not doctors and are not prescribing medications or solutions to any sleep disorders. If you have a sleep disorder, consider seeking out a medical professional who can help diagnose and treat you properly. That said, everyone could learn about sleep science and what leads to a more restful night.

You Can Learn to Function with Less Sleep

This is a common myth, especially among young adults, who are generally fit and healthy enough to compensate for poor sleep. According to one study, levels of sleepiness among consistently sleep-deprived participants plateaued after a few days, which may lead one to believe that the body is adjusting to decreased sleep.

However, these levels of sleepiness were self-reported, and the same study found that these individuals' observed ability to stay awake decreased over time. While your body might compensate for getting less sleep initially, the overall strain could cause many unfortunate side effects, including reduced ability to stay awake during the day, decreased performance, and ncreased health consequences.

Take Melatonin

Melatonin is a hormone-dependent on your circadian rhythm that your body releases (or should release) when it is bedtime. However, external or internal factors can sometimes hinder or block this process. For example, if you're exposed to bright overhead lights all evening, your body might be confused. Melatonin supplements help with these circumstances and are recommended as an easy fix. But take these supplements with a grain of salt!

One study finds that over-the-counter melatonin supplements contain any where from - 83% - 478% of the advertised dose. In addition, 26% of these supplements were found to contain added serotonin. Several other studies suggest that the appropriate dosage to help you fall asleep is 0.3 milligrams. Over-the-counter supplements generally come in pills that contain 5-10 milligrams, a much higher amount than necessary. For these reasons, if you plan to use melatonin as a supplement, be careful with the source and dosage!

When You Sleep Doesn't Matter

The third myth is that it doesn't matter what time you are sleeping as long as you're getting the right amount of sleep. Several scientific studies have linked poor sleep quality and higher risk for poor health to night shift workers, who sleep during the day. An occasional daytime nap could improve your health, increasing your alertness, attention span, memory, reaction time, and problem-solving abilities! Remember, however, frequent regular napping is sometimes associated with poor health outcomes and isn't recommended for those struggling with insomnia.

Resting With Closed Eyes is as Beneficial as Sleep

Your bodily processes change dramatically when you enter deep sleep, the third stage of sleep. Your body temperature drops, brain waves, breath rate, and heart rate slows. While in th is stage, your body repairs itself, attending to bones, tissues, muscles, and boosting your immune system. While resting with closed eyes has some benefits, it is no replacement for sleep!

If You Can't Fall Asleep, Stay in Bed

If you're in bed, at least you're still resting. The problem is that you can learn to subconsciously link laying in bed with wakefulness. Besides this, studies show that individuals who leave the bed, avoid light, and go back to bed when tired fall asleep faster than those who stay in bed. This can be hard in college, especially if you have a roommate who is a light sleeper. Try to be prepared for this circumstance if it's something you struggle with: find a low-light reading lamp, and lay out a book or journal to occupy yourself with until you're tired. In addition, try to avoid stimulating activities, such as video games or stressful homework problems.

Hitting Snooze Does Not Affect Your Sleep Quality

Hitting the snooze button repeatedly can lead to "sleep fragmentations," short and repeated interruptions to your sleep. Sleep fragmentation can lead to weight gain and mood disorders, among other things. In other words, hitting the snooze button regularly is linked to being in a bad mood.

Watching TV Helps you Unwind and Fall Asleep

While settling down with your favorite television show might be a favorite way to unwind, watching a stimulating screen is, unsurprisingly, not conducive to sleep. Watching television late at night is linked to sleeping for a shorter time every night. This is likely because watching television stimulates parts of your brain that make it harder to fall asleep. Get your Brooklyn Nine-Nine fix earlier in the evening, and try reading a book or some other non-stimulating activity immediately before bed.

Look for our next sleep science article, focusing on how your circadian rhythm works and how to manually reset your clock! Many of these myths were chosen from an article in the academic journal Sleep Health and many other articles in academic journals. Please refer to the references for more detailed information.

Kaitlin Meyer

Kaitlin Meyer

Kaitlin Meyer is a Master's student at Ohio State University (OSU), and is writing a thesis on snow microstructure inspired by her love for skiing. She earned a B.A. in Liberal Arts from Wyoming Catholic College (WCC).
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