📚Sleep Science: Most Common Misconceptions
America in 2019 is a place where the perceived importance of sleep varies vastly depending on the group with which you discuss it. To most teenagers, the 12-hour-sleep is the holy grail of the weekend agenda; to young entrepreneurs and students, however, sleep is a near-fictitious entity, who is only summoned in response to the most dire of situations. And to us folks who look for a balanced sleep schedule, we likely sleep the recommended amount--somewhere between 7 to 9 hours nightly. This is is still a striking amount of variation of about 28% and leaves a large margin of error, especially when so many people are overshooting or undershooting their mark.
We will spend roughly 229,000 hours asleep in our lifetime, equating to about one-third of our lifetime. To me this is all the argument needed to motivate my study of sleep, and as such in this article I will lay out what I see as some of the most common misconceptions about sleep that I think negatively impact our relationship with it. To frame the importance of this conversation, let’s first look at the very real cost of sleep.
The US National Library of Medicine published research in 2017 indicating the financial drain of sleep problems in America potentially resulting in as much as a 2.28% drain on the country’s GDP (gross domestic product), meaning the exact figure of the cost could have been as high as 411$ billion in 2017. The idea of the research here is that societal struggles with sleep results in absenteeism, illness, and inefficiency in work and other tasks. There are some researchers who suggest that the cost is even higher, because we are not yet able to fully grasp the consequences of our poor decisions when it comes to sleep.
Where DId We Go Wrong?
One question you might have is, how did we get this wrong? Sleep after all--at least for many of us--is one of the most natural states of our daily experience. But it is exactly this that indicates the issue; I think we can all agree that modern America is at odds with our connection to the natural world. More than ever before in human history, our technology has elevated the human race to levels of efficiency and performance we have never before seen, and yet the tradeoff is that we have lost our connection to the natural world. Very few of us rise with the sun, spend time outdoors daily, or maintain a relationship with the forests we live in or near--if we even live by one at all.
This explains the seemingly large variation of sleep recommended for each individual--between 7 and 9 hours nightly--because there is no longer any baseline for us such as the sunrise, since so many of us operate on the totally different demands of our work schedules. So how do we know how much sleep we actually need? One of the most prevalent misunderstandings here is that we can simply try more or less sleep, and see how it suits us.
This unfortunately is not true. SleepHelp recommends adjusting your schedule by a miniscule amount of 15 minutes each night until you find yourself feeling rested and rejuvenated in the mornings. The idea is that you will start at 7 hours of sleep, and then push your bedtime back by 15 minutes, until you feel satisfied with your sleep, up to a maximum of 9 hours. Even this recommendation can lead you astray if you don’t understand your personal sleep requirements.
The Sleep Problem
The underlying issue here is that to truly monitor our sleep effectively, we need to have a fairly deep insight into our daily life and performance levels throughout in order to really understand and then track how our sleep patterns are affecting us--which certainly is easier said than done. First of all, it is not always the quantity of hours of sleep that affects how we feel when that alarm goes off in the morning--it’s more often than not the quality of the sleep that you get. This paints the picture of why many people report feeling more rested when they get less than the recommended amount.
This can happen when sleep quality is an issue, and the person is able to circumnavigate those things by increasing the exhaustion they feel before going to sleep. That way--even though they may only sleep for say five hours--they are sleeping through the discomfort or disruption that would otherwise lessen their sleep quality if the sleep cycles were spread out over the recommended time frame, which falsely gives the notion that they are totally rested in the morning. Afterall, it is really inconvenient to have to study your sleep patterns deeply enough to glean the necessary conclusions.
But that’s why I am writing this article, to give you a headstart. One of the biggest favors you can do for yourself is to get a mattress that suits your personal needs. A huge misconception here is that what is comfortable when you’re going to sleep will be comfortable throughout the night. This is why many researchers indicate that a firmer mattress setup will be best for your overall sleep quality. Confounding the issue are health issues such as back pain, restless leg syndrome, and the countless other things that can affect what feels comfortable to you. The only thing to do here is to experiment.
Take naps, try sleeping different places--on couches, or even on the floor (to give you an idea of how your body handles a very firm surface). Ultimately it is up to you to experiment with what works best for you. The good news is that once you put in this work, you likely will never have to do it again unless you experience major physiological changes. So the next step is to invest in the right mattress. Knowing the immense cost of sleep problems on the American economy (411$ billion), the drain on each individual is sizeable, especially if you are particularly prone to sleep issues. This is all the justification that you should need to invest in the right mattress for you; just do your research and find the one that best fits your needs.
Changing Your Mindset
One of the most impactful misconceptions about sleep is the assumption that we do not shape it in the hours before we close our eyes for the night. What you watch, what you eat, and the conversations that you have before you go to sleep will all affect the quality of your sleep. You should actively think about your sleep as a time for recharging and a time to explore the wonderful imagination of dreams. Because by not participating in these things, you are inadvertently giving power to the things you don’t want invading your sleep--such as stressful ideas, nightmares, etc.
Your mind is a wonderful tool, and it will work on the problems you constructively focus on, so a final tip I will leave with you is this: leave yourself 10 minutes before sleep where you close your eyes, clear your mind, and focus on rest. Let yourself think of the types of dreams you would like to have, your favorite book you’ve read, or some of the best experiences you have had. Doing this will program your mind to reflect on these things while you sleep, and more importantly while you dream. So that while you work on the other more tedious areas of overcoming your sleep problems, at least your dreams can begin to reward you with payoffs for your efforts. While it is so easy to forget the importance of sleep, once you align all of the factors to encourage your deepest, most restful sleep--you will never go back.