Common misconceptions could be keeping you from getting the rest you need.
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If there’s one thing we know about sleep today, it’s that people are not getting enough of it. Especially in the age of tech, 24/7 phone notifications, social media and other distractions — sometimes getting eight hours of rest can seem pretty elusive.
Since sleep is so important, not getting enough of it can be bad news for your health, mood and waistline. Many people are being more intentional about sleep by investing in things like sleep trackers, better mattresses and more to help them sleep. But despite good intentions, people still aren’t getting enough rest. The CDC estimates that more than a third of US adults don’t get enough sleep.
So, what’s the deal? Well, there are quite a few myths and common misconceptions that could be messing with their sleep. To get to the bottom of them, and figure out what’s true and what you shouldn’t worry about, I asked a sleep neurologist and associate professor at the University of Michigan, Dr. Shelley Hershner to weigh in.
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The good news? Hershner says the changes you need to make to get better sleep are actually a lot smaller than you think. “Small changes such as going to bed 15 minutes earlier and sleeping in 15 minutes can actually have an impact on how you feel the next day, your daytime sleepiness, your sleep quality. And a 15-minute change is easier to swallow and incorporate into your life than an hour change,” Hershner said.
Keep reading for more sleep tips from Hershner, and find out why these common myths about sleep just aren’t true.
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Myth 1: Your bedtime doesn’t matter
Maybe you can fall asleep easily and you’re regularly clocking seven or more hours of sleep, but you still feel tired. The problem could be your sleep pattern, and not the number of hours you’re sleeping.
“There’s more evidence that says sleep regularity is more important than the time you go to sleep. So going to bed at a relatively consistent time is important,” Hershner said.
“There’s an interesting study out of Harvard, that found that rather than total sleep time, how regularly a student sleeps had a greater impact on grade point average than total sleep time. We all have unique internal clocks, but having a regular sleep pattern, may be as important as the amount of sleep we’re getting, if not more important,” Hershner said.
Regular sleep pattern means getting sleep around the same time every night. “The actual timing is dependant upon your age and obligations,” Hershner said.
Myth 2: Sleeping in on the weekend helps you “catch up” on sleep
It makes sense in theory that if you don’t get enough rest during the work week, but then sleep in on the weekends, then you’re making up for lost sleep. It’s easy to think this is ok and fall into that habit every weekend, but according to Hershner it’s not a great idea.
“Don’t sleep in for more than an hour on the weekend. In an ideal circumstance you would keep the same schedule on weekends as on weekdays, but I don’t think that’s realistic,” Hershner said.
Sleeping too much can throw off your sleep for the next day, or event the rest of the week. “What you’re going to have is what we call ‘social jetlag’, so that when you need to go to sleep on Sunday, it’s going to be harder for you to fall asleep [that night] since you slept in. We often need about 17 hours of wakefulness before we feel sleepy. So if you slept until noon you wouldn’t expect to feel sleepy at 10pm that night,” Hershner said.
Myth 3: It’s always a good idea to wake up really early to work out
Waking up early to work out can be a good thing, as long as you’re getting 7-8 hours of sleep.
Do you have a friend or co-worker that constantly boasts about waking up at 5am to workout and then needs to chug coffee all day just to function? Well, it could be doing more harm than good, especially if one of your goals is to lose weight.
The key to making early morning exercise work for you is to make sure you’re getting enough sleep the night before. Even if you have a habit of never skipping your 6 am workout, don’t try to go if you got into bed at midnight the night before.
“We definitely know that when you are sleep deprived that it can contribute to weight gain because you get an increase in hormones that increase your appetite and decrease you feeling full,” Hershner said. “So not getting enough sleep can lead to weight gain, make you more hungry and reduce your athletic performance.”
Myth 4: Drinking caffeine in the afternoon is always okay
This is another myth that can keep people from getting good quality sleep, and it’s not true. Just because drinking that 4pm espresso doesn’t prevent you from falling asleep later, doesn’t mean that it won’t affect your sleep.
“Caffeine can affect your sleep since it stays in your system for up to eight hours. Sometimes people say they can have caffeine at 5pm and still fall asleep and so they think it’s not affecting them. But it can still reduce the quality of your sleep and still cause people to wake up in the middle of the night,” Hershner said.
Myth 5: It’s totally okay to scroll through Instagram or watch TV before bed
Plenty of people think that their tech habits aren’t really hurting their sleep since they can still nod off even after hours of Netflix binging. But according to Hershner, this is one of the most common causes of sleep issues since sometimes tech is affecting you in ways you may not realize at first.
One study that Hershner referenced found that people who used an iPad ($329 at Amazon) a few hours before bed only took an extra 10 minutes to fall asleep. But when they looked at biomarkers in those people, they found that melatonin production was significantly impacted, which is the real problem.
Checking your phone in bed can be one of the reasons you can’t sleep.
“People ended up having poor quality sleep and more daytime sleepiness, but the only difference that the person would have been aware of is that it took them 10 more minutes to fall asleep. But there is a very strong biologic response. To have that much of a change in the secretion of melatonin tells you that light is really adversely affecting sleep,” Hershner said.
Hershner recommends keeping devices as far away from your face as possible (and opting to watch shows or videos on a TV screen versus on your phone, laptop, or other device that is right in front of your face).
And if you can’t kick your Netflix or scrolling before bed routine, she recommends wearing Amber tinted glasses and using an app like Night Shift to block some of the blue light being emitted. Just be warned that some research suggests that even Night Shift can’t save you from poor sleep.
Myth 6: Alcohol helps you sleep
Your nightly glass of wine could be interacting with your sleep.
This myth is a tricky one since many people find that a glass of wine or other drink at night helps them fall asleep. And while I’ll admit that I’m sometimes guilty of craving a glass of wine at the end of a long day, I didn’t know that it could be messing up my sleep in the long run.
“Alcohol can make it easier to fall asleep, but it leads to more sleep fragmentation in the middle of the night. And that effect seems to be more as you age, unfortunately,” Hershner said. Sleep fragmentation means you’re more likely to wake up throughout the night, or have disrupted sleep patterns. Herhsner said drinking specifically can impact your REM sleep pattern.
If you are going to drink at night, Herhsner said it’s better to have it further away from when you go to sleep, like at dinner early in the evening instead of after.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.