Despite spending around one-third of our lives sleeping, there are still many mysteries that are unanswered. Scientists are trying to find answers, but the wonder of slumber is much more complex than it appears. Let’s look at some of the common myths.
Sleep helps maintain good physical and mental health, and sleep loss is associated with a range of health conditions, including diabetes, depression, stroke and more.
However, because sleep is associated with dreams, altered states, and emotions, it is no surprise that it is tied to many myths.
Let’s look at some of the most common myths.
- Your brain shuts down during sleep
Thankfully, our brains do not quit their day jobs during sleep. Important functions, such as breathing, mean our brains can never fully shut down. In fact, during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, when most dreams occur, brain wave activity is like that of wakefulness.
Interestingly, despite the high level of activity, it is hardest to wake a sleeper during REM sleep.
While we sleep, our brain has much to do. Once we have dropped off, our brain cycles through 3 stages of non-REM sleep, followed by 1 phase of REM sleep. In each of the 4 stages, the brain demonstrates specific brain wave patterns and neural activity.
This cycle of 4 stages repeats 5 or 6 times during a full night’s sleep.
- If you remember your dream, you slept well
Most people dream every night, yet often don’t remember them. Dreams mostly occur during REM sleep, but they are almost immediately forgotten.
It is only when someone wakes during or just after REM sleep that the memory of a dream has not yet faded.
Some studies suggest that people who often recall dreams might sleep less well.
- Never wake up a sleepwalker
The common belief is that if you wake up a sleepwalker, they might have a heart-attack or even die. This is not true.
However, if someone wakes up a sleepwalker, they can spark confusion and sometimes fear. Some sleepwalkers may act aggressively, so people need to be cautious if they wake them.
The United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS) website suggests that “the best thing to do if you see someone sleepwalking is to make sure they’re safe.”
- Alcohol guarantees a good night’s sleep
Alcohol reduces the amount of time it takes you to get to sleep. Someone who has drunk alcohol might also be more difficult to rouse. Because of this, people often assume that it has a beneficial impact on sleep overall. This is not the case. The quality of sleep under the influence of alcohol is poorer in comparison to sleep without alcohol.
To awake feeling refreshed, our brain must cycle through the highly orchestrated series of phases and cycles mentioned above. Alcohol knocks this series of repetitions out of whack.
For instance, after drinking alcohol, REM sleep reduction in the first part of sleep is significant. Total REM sleep percentage is decreased in the majority of studies at moderate and high doses.
Another study which looked at the relationship between drugs and sleep more broadly, self-reported sleep problems are highly prevalent among alcohol users with rates of clinical insomnia between 35 and 70 percent.
To summarize, while alcohol does get you to sleep quicker, the sleep you have will be less refreshing.
- Cheese and other foods
Eating a large meal just before bed, whether it includes cheese or not, can cause indigestion or heartburn, which could interfere with sleep.
If your sleep is disturbed by an active gut, and you become more wakeful more often, you will be more likely to remember any dreams you had. As mentioned above, people forget dreams almost as quickly as they form – unless you wake up during the dream, you are unlikely to remember it.
And, if your gut is uncomfortable, it might increase the chances of having unpleasant dreams.
Eating a large meal, especially a high-carbohydrate meal, could trigger night sweats because the body generates heat as it metabolizes the food.
Why and how the cheese/nightmare myth began is unclear, but the fact that cheese boards tend to appear at the end of a large meal might offer some insight. Although some believe the origins of the cheese myth might lie in ancient legends.
A related myth is that certain foods, including milk, cheese, and turkey might help induce sleep. This is because they contain an amino acid called tryptophan.
Tryptophan is necessary for the body to make serotonin, which is necessary for the manufacture of melatonin, a hormone that plays a role in sleep.
Studies investigating tryptophan intake have not found an overwhelming effect on sleep. Additionally, the levels of the acid in a portion of cheese or turkey are not high enough to make a difference.
Sleep still holds many mysteries. Only through science and research can we eventually unlock more answers. However, as we’ve outlined, there are data to dispel many of the most entrenched myths.
For now, the best advice is to avoid late-night meals, reduce alcohol intake, and be gentle with sleepwalkers.
That’s it for now; see you all the next time.