It’s time to learn the truth about sleep.
Many of us really don’t know how to sleep.
We think we do. We hear things from friends about how to get a good night’s sleep. Or, we take tips from online sources.
Not all of them are accurate, according to Dr. James Davis, director of Neurocare Sleep Center in Jackson Township.
Davis is board certified in both neurology and sleep medicine. So, you can take his advice and opinions to the bed.
The sleep doctor helped us debunk some often-heard myths.
Myth: We just fall asleep.
Reality: We don’t fall asleep at all.
“That’s one of the great myths—that we fall asleep as if it’s a passive process,” said Dr. Davis. “It’s not passive at all. It feels as if it’s happening at a low level (of activity), but there is a lot going on under the hood. The brain is making decisions and causing sleep to occur. There is actually a part of the brain whose job it is to go around and switch off all of the (body’s) lights.”
Myth: The brain shuts off when we go to sleep.
Reality: The brain continues to perform myriad functions.
“Actually, during sleep the brain is active doing many different things. You look at someone in bed and they’re sleeping like a log, so it looks like nothing is happening, but the brain is very active,” said Dr. Davis. “The brain is not repairing as much as it’s preparing, getting itself ready for memory and concentration the next day. It’s updating. It’s rebooting.”
Myth: Watching television helps us fall asleep.
Reality: The TV is keeping us awake.
“People will feel relaxed while watching television,” said Dr. Davis. “The television makes a person relaxed. The problem is that the light in the eyes actually stimulates them to stay awake. They would fall asleep better if they turned the TV off.”
Myth: We need fewer hours of sleep as we get older.
Reality: Most adults, regardless of age, still need that suggested eight hours of sleep at night.
“What happens is that we have a more difficult time getting to deep stages of sleep,” said Dr. Davis. “That doesn’t mean we don’t need it. Now the amount of sleep you need when you’re 16 or 18 is different than what you need in your mid-20s. Young people’s bodies are growing, and they need more sleep. But, when somebody is past 50, they need the normal seven to eight hours of sleep suggested for an adult. They just may have a harder time getting it.”
Myth: We can cheat on the amount of sleep we get each night.
Reality: In the short term, perhaps, but it will catch up to you.
“Let’s just say that we need eight hours of sleep each night; that would be 56 hours of sleep a week,” said Dr. Davis. “People can get less than that, and it’s not like they immediately have to make it up. What will happen is the brain will compensate. But, you can’t keep doing that to yourself. If you do, you run the risk of an increased incidence of things like dementia.”
Myth: Many adults have “sleep terrors.”
Reality: Children have “sleep terrors.” Adults usually just have nightmares.
“It’s almost always kids who have ‘sleep terrors,’ and they may be running around and screaming bloody murder,” said Dr. Davis. “I’ll have adults come to me and say ‘I’m having sleep terrors.’ I’ll ask them, ‘Why do you think that?’ And they’ll say, ‘Because I’m having nightmares.’ I’ll tell them that what they’re having are not sleep terrors, just really bad dreams.”
Myth: Melatonin helps improve sleep.
Reality: Only if you plan ahead.
“This is one of my favorites,” said Dr. Davis. “And it’s really not the fault of the people taking it. Generally, the directions say ‘Take at bedtime.’ But, melatonin sets the brain up to go to sleep over a period of hours. You really have to take it three or four hours before you go to bed. It can help you sleep, if you take it at dinner time.”
Myth: Certain foods and drinks, such as warm milk, might help you sleep.
Reality: You shouldn’t be eating and drinking late at night.
“Food does not really help you sleep,” said Dr. Davis. “The key thing with food and sleep is you should never eat or drink something with a lot of calories before bedtime, and do not eat anything in the middle of the night. Your brain will recognize you ate at 3 in the morning, and expect to eat the next day at 3 in the morning. And if you eat or drink something hot right before you go to bed, that’s a real no-no. It will heat up your core body temperature and tell your brain that it’s not time to sleep.”
Myth: Get up and read if you can’t sleep.
Reality: Maybe, but not right away.
“If you wake up in the middle of the night, lay there for a while,” Dr. Davis advised. “You should at least give your brain about a half-hour to go back to sleep. After that, we usually say, ‘OK, maybe it’s good to get out of bed.’ The trick with that is not to get a lot of light. The temptation is to go on the computer or watch TV. Try to get up and relax, without that much light. I tell people to go sit in a comfortable chair and if you want to read, don’t read a self-help book because that will get your brain thinking. Read a spy novel.”
Myth: Playing mood music can help you sleep.
Reality: It’s better than setting the mood with a lamp on a bedside stand.
“This is not a total myth,” admitted Dr. Davis. “Some people are thinking about their day so much they need something to get their mind off of things. It’s better than turning on the light to read. I try to get people to go to books on disk. Our brains can adjust to sound. It’s harder to ignore more light. I tell people that there is a reason we were born with eyelids and not earlids.”