A growing number of Americans aren’t getting enough sleep. According to the CDC, a whopping 35 percent of American adults aren’t getting the recommended amount of sleep every night—and that’s making them vulnerable to a host of different conditions and diseases, including obesity and heart disease. Part of the problem is that we haven’t made sleep a priority in our lives; we’re busy staying up late to finish projects, or finish a show on Netflix, instead of going to bed early to get the extra sleep we need.
But an even bigger problem may be the fact that we buy into myths about healthy sleep that aren’t necessarily true.
Most Common Healthy Sleep Myths
These are some of the most commonly followed myths about healthy sleep, leading to lower-quality sleep overall:
- Occasional nights without sleep can’t affect your health. It’s true that you’ll do significant damage to your health if you allow your sleep habits to become chronically bad. If you get only 5 hours of sleep a night, consistently, you’ll make yourself vulnerable to a number of chronic conditions. However, even a single night of missed sleep or poor sleep can negatively affect your health. You’ll increase your stress levels and reduce your immune system function, not to mention reduce your capacity for cognitive function and memory.
- More sleep is always better. You might also believe that more sleep is always better, since the big problem seems to be that Americans aren’t getting “enough” sleep. However, getting too much sleep can also be a problem, causing diabetes, depression, and other harmful side effects. Your goal should be 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night—more or less than that can become a health issue.
- Eye masks always help you sleep better. You’ve heard that excessive light can interfere with your ability to sleep, so you might have considered wearing an eye mask to bed. And it’s true; studies do show that wearing an eye mask can help you sleep better, but only under certain conditions. They need to fit comfortably, and be made of a comfortable material—basically, it has to feel like the eye mask isn’t there at all.
- Alcohol helps you sleep. Anyone who’s consumed a considerable amount of alcohol in the past knows alcohol’s propensity for making you feel tired. And to some extent, it’s true that alcohol helps you sleep—after drinking alcohol, you’ll get to sleep faster. However, once asleep, you’ll be engaged in much lower-quality sleep, waking up several times throughout the night and possibly having significant trouble getting back to sleep. Ultimately, you’ll wake up more tired than you were before.
- All naps have the same effect. Napping is an effective way to catch up on sleep you lost during the night, and combat side effects like drowsiness and inability to focus. However, not all naps are equally effective. If you nap too long, like for a duration of 2 hours, you’ll wake up feeling little to no difference. It’s best to keep naps restricted to 20 minutes to an hour, and to take them in ideal conditions (dark, quiet, and comfortable).
- Everyone requires the same amount of sleep. That “7 to 9 hours” recommendation is broad for a reason; not everyone requires the same amount of sleep to be healthy. If you take a group of people and force them all to sleep for exactly 7 hours each night, some will perform better, and others will perform worse. You can figure out your personal “ideal” sleep duration by experimenting, but for now, it’s best to note that not everyone has the same sleep needs.
- You can catch up on sleep over the weekend. There’s a grain of truth to this myth; if you miss out on sleep, you’ll accumulate a “sleep debt,” which you can start paying off by sleeping later. However, delaying your quality sleep until the weekend will leave you vulnerable to the side effects of losing sleep throughout the week. You’ll also experience greater difficulty finding the “right” amount of sleep to catch up on, since the variables will change considerably.
Making Good Habits
Even knowing what it takes to form healthy sleep habits, it’s hard to make those habits a reality. It all starts with a commitment to making complete, healthy sleep a priority in your life; once you’ve done that, you can start making better long-term choices for yourself, and delaying your immediate desires for more consistent periods of sleep (and a more restful mind to go along with it). The good news is, once those decisions start to become automatic habits, maintaining your sleep health will become significantly easier.