Updated: Feb 23, 2022
Last week we spent some time examining some of the more prevalent sleep myths out there around how much to sleep. We’ll be doing a deeper dive into some even more deeply entrenched beliefs this week - hang on!!
Sleep myth #4 - Early bird gets the worm
I had always prided myself in being a naturally early riser, enjoying the soft quiet morning air. And I had also bought into societal norms that insist that morning larks are more hardworking, conscientious, responsible. Actually, sleep research shows that we each have unique biological rhythms, with approximately ⅓ of us falling in the early riser chronotypes, ⅓ in the night owls, and ⅓ somewhere in between.
So sorry, fellow morning larks - I’m afraid we can only take partial credit for our genes and not necessarily all those other virtuous attributes. We can probably blame generations of agricultural and hunting forebears who instilled us with cultural beliefs around the virtues of early risers.
But actually as I’ve gotten older, I am beginning to envy my night owl husband his ability to sleep in late, whether he went to bed early or not, wishing that my internal alarm clock wouldn’t be quite so consistent.
As it happens, most of us do have internal biological clocks that are surprisingly precise. If you are not sure of your chronotype, a good way to figure out what works best for your own body is by tossing out your alarm clock - at least for a few days.
What ?! Yes - you did read that right! Of course most schools and workplaces don’t necessarily allow us to honor our natural diurnal rhythms, but it’s helpful to have an awareness of what suits our bodies best.
Sleep myth #5 - But sleepers help me sleep
One of the most common myths I encounter is the belief that sleep medicines or “sleepers” are helpful or even necessary. People get very attached to their sleep aids, whether they are mild natural supplements like melatonin, or prescription sedative/hypnotic medications. It’s like they know deep down that sleep aids aren’t good for them, but they just love them.
Most people are able to rationalize this belief because the alternative is sleeping less, and of course that must be more damaging to their health, right?.
While this makes some kind of logical sense, it fails to take two basic facts into account. The first is that sleep aids build dependency and second is that almost all sleep aids distort natural sleep architecture to some degree.
A crutch to lean on
What do I mean by dependency? Let’s say that you go through a stressful period with a loved one and you are having trouble falling asleep (sleep latency) or can’t seem to be able to stay asleep (sleep maintenance).
Some of us may reach for a glass of wine to help us unwind at the end of a long day and in addition to relaxing us, it may make it a bit easy to fall asleep. Over the shorter term this may seem like a good idea, but over the longer term we are teaching our bodies to depend on something external to achieve sleep,
It’s good to be aware of the costs and benefits of choices we make, whether it’s about donuts or screen time.
Our bodies are naturally designed to sleep at least a third of any given 24 hour period of time. Adding a substance to help when we are having trouble may seem harmless, but it is easy for our brains to latch on to the “easy button” and then build up a lot of anxiety and or discomfort when it is withdrawn.
As an analogy, let’s say that you injured your knee in an accident. You may end up taking some pain medicine or using a crutch for a while, but you would eventually want to walk on your own and not be on medication, right? You may even be willing to experience some discomfort or pain as you start walking without the crutch or medicine at first, but you would trust your body to be able to figure it out and heal itself.
No free rides
Moving on to sleep architecture, you probably have heard that our sleep is structured to achieve maximum benefit through a series of complex stages.
Different sleep aids have different effects on sleep architecture, but the most important takeaway is that we want to promote your body’s natural sleep cycle as much as possible in order to maximize brain and overall health.
At best sleepers may interfere with sleep efficiency (actual restful sleep stages). At worst they deliver a kind of comatose unconsciousness that pretends to be restful, but which effectively robs us of the opportunity to get natural healing sleep.
Coming back to the painful knee injury, imagine you were offered a wheelchair instead of a crutch right after the injury? You might think - okay that seems like a good idea because crutches are awkward, my arms get tired, and I can’t hold my phone very easily. So being in a wheelchair may seem easy and fun at first, but then your body begins to get used to sitting, and muscles atrophy.
You may say, but no actually - my body is broken so I need the medicine to help me sleep. And that’s okay. I have definitely written my share of sleeper prescriptions and continue to do so when appropriate. There is no judgment or shame intended here. It’s good to be fully aware of the costs and benefits of choices that we make, whether it’s about donuts or wine or screen time or sleep.
Janet Whalen is a certified life coach and sleep therapist.