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8 sleep myths, busted

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Counting sheep never helped me get to sleep. Small wonder: it doesn’t work. British researchers actually looked into this age-old sleep remedy and published a study in 2002 showing that you’re more likely to drift off sooner if you imagine relaxing scenes. Their research suggested that counting sheep is so boring that we soon switch back to our worries du jour.

What other myths about sleep should we discount? Here are eight that may surprise you.

Myth: There’s no such thing as a beauty sleep.

Fact: Recent research from Sweden shows that getting enough sleep does makes you more attractive. The investigators asked 65 untrained observers (age 18 to 61) to randomly rate the attractiveness of 23 men and women age 18 to 31 on the basis of photographs. There were two photos of each participant, one taken after a good night’s sleep and another taken after being awake for 31 hours following a night when they didn’t get enough sleep. The observers rated the sleep-deprived photos as less attractive and less healthy. 

Myth: Reading or watching TV relaxes you so you can nod off.

Fact:  Conventional wisdom holds that this is a bad practice because an engrossing book or TV show can keep you awake. But new evidence suggests that something more serious is taking place: overexposure to light at night. Your bedside lamp or the glow from the TV screen can suppress production of melatonin, the hormone essential to our sleep-wake cycle. Melatonin is produced by the pineal gland in the brain, but this happens only in the dark, says sleep specialist Rubin Naiman, Ph.D., clinical assistant professor of medicine at the University of Arizona’s Center for Integrative Medicine. What’s more, Israeli researchers have linked light at night (from the TV, a night light, an open window) to an increased risk of breast cancer.

Myth: We need less sleep as we get older.

Fact: Regardless of age, adults need seven to nine hours of shut-eye daily. The notion that seniors need less shut-eye comes from the fact that sleep patterns change with age so that older people may wake up more often and don’t regularly clock those seven to nine hours.

Myth: Beer or wine before bed helps you sleep.

Fact: While a nightcap may seem relaxing, alcohol actually disrupts normal sleep cycles, particularly refreshing REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, the stage when dreams normally occur. According to the Cleveland Clinic, the result can be “REM rebound,” causing nightmares and trouble sleeping. And frequent alcohol use can launch a vicious cycle of seriously disturbed sleep, often leading to more drinking or substance abuse in a quest for sleep.

Myth: If you can’t sleep or you wake up during the night, it's best to relax until you fall asleep.

Fact: Not being able to fall or stay asleep is a symptom of insomnia. Sleep experts say your best bet is to get up after 15 or 20 minutes, go into another room and listen to music or read until you feel drowsy.

Myth: Taking prescription sleeping pills is a path to addiction.

Fact: According to the National Sleep Foundation, today’s sleeping pills taken as directed are safe and effective treatments for insomnia and present a lower risk of dependency than yesterday’s medications. (Exception: individuals with a history of addiction or alcohol or drug abuse.) Just be sure that you can sleep for 7 to 8 hours before you swallow the pill.

Myth: Your brain rests during sleep.

Fact: Your body rests while you snooze, but your brain is pretty busy consolidating memories and cognitive function. Sleep is also thought to give neurons used while we’re awake a chance to shut down and repair themselves so that they can continue to function normally. But awake or asleep, the brain is on the job. You’re still breathing, aren’t you?

Myth: The more sleep, the better.

Fact: Getting too much—or too little—slumber is linked to higher rates of diabetes,  high blood pressure, and heart disease, reports Harvard Medical School’s Division of Sleep Medicine. Also concerning is a 2009 study from Spain, which found that adults age 65 or older who typically slept nine hours or more (including naps) were at higher risk for dementia. And other research has suggested that habitually sleeping nine hours or longer is associated with depression, illness and accidents. Conversely, regularly snoozing less than six hours a night is a risk factor for obesity, which in turn can lead to a long list of health risks, including diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. For optimum health, aim for 7 to 8 hours of sleep.

By Lisa Collier Cool




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