The real reason you can’t fall asleep might not be as simple as you think. If you’ve ever said, “I need to catch up on sleep,” or cranked up the radio while driving to offset fatigue, you’ve been letting some of these myths creep into your life. Quit believing in these six misconceptions and instead take our experts’ advice on how to kick that tired feeling to the curb — for good.
1. “If I miss sleep during the week, I can make up for it on the weekend.”
You can catch up on short-term sleep debt if you do it within a few days, explains Dr. W. Christopher Winter, of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine. If you slept poorly last night, go to bed early tonight and you’ll probably make up for the sleep you lost. But you can’t make up for the zzz’s you lose over a long period of time. Trying to catch up on those all-nighters you had in college with better shut-eye now isn’t going to repair any damage done.
“The last thing we want is for someone to attach a feeling of frustration to their sleep environment. We don’t want people to ‘try’ to fall asleep.”
While this still might tempt you to shortchange yourself during the week, making up for lost sleep on the weekend is really too late, says Joyce Walsleben, RN, PhD, associate professor of medicine at NYU School of Medicine. “You’ve already been irritable and possibly experienced poor reaction times that may have caused accidents,” she says. “Snoozing late on the weekend can also disrupt your sleep rhythm and make it difficult to go to bed Sunday night, so you’ll be starting the next week already in the hole,” Walsleben says.
2. “If I wake up in the middle of the night, I should stay in bed and try to fall back asleep.”
While you may think counting sheep will send you back into Snoozeville, if hundreds of animals have traipsed through your mind and you’re starting to feel stressed out about it, getting out of bed may help, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
“If you can lie in bed awake in the dark and stay relaxed, thinking positive thoughts, then I advise those people to stay in bed,” Winter says. “The people I tell to get out of bed and go to a new environment are those who get frustrated and irritated when they can’t fall back asleep.” If that’s the case for you, go to another room and try reading a book. “The last thing we want is for someone to attach a feeling of frustration to their sleep environment,” Winter says. “We don’t want people to try to fall asleep.”
If you wake up in the middle of the night and experience problems falling back asleep frequently, change up your bedroom by buying new sheets, painting your room, or making the room darker with new blinds. Make it feel like a different environment other than the one you associate with your lack of sleep.
3. “I have to get eight hours of sleep because that’s what’s recommended.”
There isn’t a magical amount of sleep that’s universally right for everyone. Winter recommends a healthy, young person aim for seven-and-a-half to eight hours a night, but it’s a matter of personal trial and error. If you get eight hours of sleep a night and you’re exhausted during the day, that might not be enough for you. On the other hand, if you’re getting a solid seven and a half hours of sleep a night but you experience trouble passing out at night, that could be your brain saying it doesn’t need quite as much time in bed as you may think it does. The amount of sleep your body requires may change over the years, so listen to it and adjust your sleep schedule accordingly.
4. “My snoring is normal and not really a problem.”
Although 40 percent of us will snore at some time, it shouldn’t go ignored, Walsleben says. Snoring is a sign of obstructive sleep apnea, when your airway collapses or becomes blocked during sleep. Sometimes people with sleep apnea wake up during the night gasping for breath. These breathing pauses all night long can strain the heart and increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
Snoring can happen at any age and should be evaluated by a doctor to determine what’s causing it. Sometimes sleeping on your side or with your head elevated will make a difference, as will weight loss in those that are overweight, Walsleben says.
5. “If I feel sleepy when driving, turning up the music and opening the window wake me up.”
Research has shown that nothing will correct drowsiness while driving except sleep. “If you recognize that you’re having trouble staying alert, pull over to a safe location and take a brief nap,” says Walsleben. The brain is like a computer: When it begins to get tired, it shuts down its ‘programs’ one at a time. One of the first areas to shut down are the frontal lobes where our judgment centers are located. So we are usually the last to know when we’re tired and having trouble concentrating. Having another passenger in the car may come in handy to spot signs of weariness, and possibly take over driving responsibilities if they’re alert and able.
6. “I have insomnia and never sleep.”
If you are reading this article, you sleep. Insomnia is when you don’t get quality sleep, or quality sleep that meets your expectations. “I see patients every week who tell me they never sleep or only sleep about an hour a night, which just isn’t true,” says Winter. You create more sleep issues when you start framing your problems based on a premise that may not be true. These perceptions are as equally damning as the lack of sleep itself, Winter says. Try not to tell yourself, others, or your doctor that you never sleep. Rephrase the issue to say you’re having trouble falling asleep or that you’re waking up during the night or more specifically identify the problem at hand. Best case scenario, you’ll hit the hay with a more positive outlook ahead.