Busting Sleep Myths With Dr. Chelsie

In our fast-paced society most people aren’t getting the quality sleep they need to maintain their health and wellbeing. Sleep deprived individuals around the world often turn to Doctor Google for sleep advice. Unfortunately, as with most things on the internet, there is an endless amount of incorrect information getting around, which can be detrimental or downright dangerous. 

Today, I’ll be busting some of the sleep myths I hear most often and provide you with the real science-based facts.

Myth 1: Everyone needs 8 hours of sleep per night

It’s not difficult to understand how this myth became so ingrained in the public consciousness. We’ve been told since childhood that to stay healthy we need exactly 8 hours of shut eye every night. But the reality is that people simply aren’t that similar. 

Variations in our genetics mean that some people feel perfectly refreshed with as little as 7 hours of sleep per night while others require up to 9. So where did this myth come from? If adults usually need anywhere from 7-9 hours, 8 is bang on average. 

Myth 2: I can reverse the affects of chronic sleep loss

It’s well known in medicine that chronic, long term sleep deprivation does significant damage to your brain and body. Consistently getting less than 7 hours of sleep per night massively raises your risk for dozens of chronic health conditions like cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, and Alzheimer’s, to name a few. It also makes you more prone to developing mental health problems and increases your risk of an early death. 

Improving you sleep usually has immediate health benefits but unfortunately science has shown that not all the long-term damage is reversible. Some medical scientists consider chronic sleep loss to be just as damaging as a long-term smoking habit. Most people are aware that even when a smoker quits, parts of the body will never fully recover.

Myth 3: Only unhealthy and overweight people have Sleep Apnea 

Obstructive Sleep Apnea is the second most common sleep disorder behind insomnia and occurs when oxygen is blocked from entering the lungs. I work with people who have OSA daily and hear the “Sleep Apnea only happens to unhealthy people” myth constantly. 

While it’s true that being overweight raises your risk of developing OSA because excess fatty tissue around the neck and throat makes obstructions more likely, it’s not the only reason the disorder occurs. 

I often see perfectly healthy individuals with a normal weight and active lifestyles with the condition. This includes professional athletes, dietitians, medical professionals for example. Usually, it’s because they have anatomical features, such as large tonsils or naturally narrow airways that can make breathing during sleep difficult. It’s important to note that Obstructive Sleep Apnea runs in families, so if you have a close family member with the disorder, your own risk is doubled.  

If you have chronically bad sleep or find yourself feeling excessively tired during the day, don’t assume that your normal BMI protects you from Sleep Apnea.

Myth 4: Sleep is just a way to conserve energy 

As a sleep professional, this myth drives me crazy. To be fair, we neuroscientists didn’t fully understand the point of sleep until very recently. Sleep is pretty weird when you think about it. We dedicate 8 hours of our day to shut off our brains to the outside world, which used to be incredibly dangerous to our early ancestors. The fact that we spend a third of our life asleep points to how essential it is to our health.

Yes, sleep help us conserve energy but it’s also an incredibly dynamic process that achieves several essential biological functions. Sleep is needed for cell and tissue repair, brain waste clearance, immune system strengthening, hormone release, and memory consolidation. And that’s what scientists know about sleep so far. It’s likely that sleep does dozens of functions that haven’t been discovered.

Myth 5: Everyone with Sleep Apnea is placed on CPAP

Perhaps one of the most common reasons people avoid getting tested for Sleep Apnea is because they’re afraid of going on CPAP, which is a machine that delivers pressurized air into the throat to keep the airways open. 

While it’s true that CPAP can be difficult to get used to for the first few weeks of use, it’s very effective at reducing or eliminating the symptoms of Sleep Apnea. This doesn’t mean you’re doomed to wear a mask for the rest of your life because there are several other treatment options available. 

Current CPAP alternatives include various surgical procedures, oral appliances, and positional therapy. The types of treatments that are appropriate for you largely depend on the severity of your Sleep Apnea and what is causing the obstruction. 

If you think you have Sleep Apnea or have been recently diagnosed, don’t be afraid about asking your sleep professional about your therapeutic options. 

Myth 6: The elderly needs less sleep than younger people 

This sleep myth has interestingly been mostly perpetuated by senior citizens themselves, but the truth is that they should still be getting 7-9 hours of sleep per night. As we get older, our 24-hour biological clock that controls the time of day we’re asleep and awake, called our circadian rhythm, adjusts backwards. This means that seniors are likely to go to bed earlier and wake up earlier than the general population. 

The change in circadian rhythm in combination with other sleep issues seniors face, such as insomnia, has led many to believe that the older you are, the less sleep you need. It’s important for seniors that have difficulty getting at least 7 hours of sleep or having difficulty maintaining sleep throughout the night to speak with their doctor about their options.

Myth 7: Teenagers that sleep all day are lazy 

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the topic of teen sleep. This myth is probably one of the most damaging and has been a hot topic in sleep medicine for a while. Teenagers undergo a massive period of neurodevelopment where the brain changes and moves towards adulthood. Neurodevelopment requires lots of time spent in the deep stages of sleep.  

On top of neurodevelopment, the teenage circadian rhythm naturally shifts forward so that teens go to bed later and wake up later than the general population. Unfortunately, school start times along with other commitments force most teens to wake up earlier than their circadian rhythm dictates. This means that most teens aren’t getting enough hours of sleep, leading to mood changes, poor grades, increased napping, and the perceived “lazy teen” stereotype. 

If your teen is sleeping in or napping in the afternoon, it’s not because they’re lazy, it’s because they’re sleep deprived!