6 Myths About Aging and Sleep That Should Be Put To Bed
There are so many misconceptions about sleep swirling around out there that it's enough keep anyone awake at night.
Here are 6 sleep myths that need to have the covers pulled over their heads:
- The older I get, the less sleep I need: As is the case with many popular myths, this faulty assumption has a kernel of truth at its heart. According to Robert Oexman, D.C., Director of the Sleep to Live Institute, it's true that developing children need more sleep than fully-grown adults. Once a person reaches adulthood, however, their sleep needs remain relatively constant, even as they age.
- It's okay to play catch-up with your sleep: Most people believe that a few hours of lost sleep one night can be recouped by going to bed earlier the following night. However, Timothy Monk, Ph.D., Director of the Human Chronobiology research program at the University of Pittsburgh, says that this trusting this piece of fiction can wreak havoc on your sleep cycle. Even if you try to go to bed just a half-hour earlier than normal, you may find it challenging to fall asleep. This is due to what sleep specialists call the "forbidden zone" (aka. second wind), a period of heightened wakefulness that people experience in the hours preceding their usual bed time. Because this "forbidden zone" is keyed into your individual circadian rhythm, it's near impossible to override. And, even if you do manage to fall asleep earlier than usual, you'll likely feel groggier in the morning than you would have if you had just gone to bed at your normal time.
- Evening alcohol is a no-no if I want a sound snooze: Experts occupy both sides of the divide when it comes to this sleep issue. Mainstream modern science has advised us that swearing off alcohol before bed is the best course of action if one desires a solid night's sleep. Oexman explains the rationale: alcohol may indeed help you fall asleep faster, but it often leads to more disrupted and fitful sleep. He suggests abstaining from alcohol from early evening on. According to Monk, however, a single glass of Merlot at bedtime may help your head hit the pillow more easily by reducing your level of arousal. The jury's still out as to which piece of advice to adhere to, though.
- Waking up in the middle of the night is always bad: A sweet dream interrupted by a middle-of-the-night trip to the bathroom is certainly annoying, but probably won't be detrimental to your sleep cycle. According to Virginia Tech professor, Roger Ekirch, author of, "At Day's Close: Night in Times Past," human beings historically slept in two segments. "The way we sleep today is a remarkably recent phenomenon, the consequence of modern technology," he says. Ekirch has found historical evidence from cultures around the world that suggests a "bimodal sleep pattern." Before the advent of artificial light sources, which have re-wired our internal clocks, he says that it wasn't uncommon for a person to wake up in the middle of the night, sometimes for an hour or more, and then fall back asleep until morning.
- My nightly routine doesn't have to change just because I'm getting older: Your sleep needs may not change drastically as you get older, but your ability to get truly restful slumber might. "As we get older, our sleep gets more fragile, it becomes lighter and more easily disrupted," says Monk. Oexman agrees, adding that environmental factors (light, mattress quality, etc.), medications, certain diseases, pain, depression, and lack of routine all factor in to why it's harder for older people to catch the optimal amount of Zs. How can you make the most of your pillow time as you age? Take a hard look at your sleep environment. Is your mattress too old? Does your bed-time ritual involve too much screen time (TV or computer)—a proven trigger of insomnia? Is there too much light in the room? All of these little elements together can create an inhospitable situation for snoozing. Another important thing to watch out for: caffeine consumption. Even if it didn't affect you as a young adult, downing a late-afternoon latte could keep you awake when you're older, says Monk. He suggests abiding by this rule: no caffeine after 4 pm.
- Eight hours is the golden standard of sleep: This is perhaps one of the most oft-repeated sleep fallacies in history. The truth, as Monk puts it, is "different strokes for different folks." Everyone's sleep needs are unique to them. Some people can get by on six hours, while others need at least eight. For most people, somewhere between seven, and seven-and-a-half hours is the ideal amount, according to Monk. You can tell if you're not honoring your individual sleep requirements if you find yourself falling asleep at while making dinner, hibernating the whole weekend, or nodding off in front of the evening news.