Sleep is a basic -- and vital -- function of the human body. Those precious hours at night give our bodies and brains the chance to recover from the challenges of the previous day and prepare for the next one. Considering how important sleep is to our ability to live happy, healthy lives, it's surprising just how little we know about it. In an effort to clear up some confusion and help you get the best rest possible, let's review a few common myths and facts about sleep.
How Much Do We Need?
Many people were brought up to believe that eight hours is the magic amount of time needed. But in truth, that is a generalization that does not apply to everyone. The amount of sleep you need is based on a number of individual factors such as age, health, activity, and more. As a guideline, though, the National Sleep Foundation (NSF) provides recommendations on sleep length.
To get a better understanding of your personal needs, monitor both your sleep patterns and your daily performance. Think about indicators like your focus or energy levels? Do you depend on caffeine to get you through the day?
How Does Alcohol Affect Things?
Some people think a drink before bed as a sleep solution after a long day, likely because alcohol's depressant qualities cause drowsiness and a general feeling of relaxation. In practice, however, this doesn't actually work. While alcohol may help you fall asleep faster, the substance affects the brain in a hectic way and can greatly disrupt sleep.
According to Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, your brain produces high levels of delta waves during normal deep sleep to firm up memories and clean things up after the day's activity. This remains true when alcohol is in your system, but that bedtime drink also increases levels of alpha waves -- not something you want happening while you're asleep. This same type of dual activity is seen in people with chronic pain conditions and those who have received electroshock therapy.
What About Eating Before Bed?
According to research from NSF, whether you should eat before bed depends on you and your snack of choice. Carb-rich options may actually help you sleep by spiking both insulin and serotonin, which are directly linked to your mental state. You might find, however, that this practice causes vivid dreams that disrupt your sleep. Either way, the general advice to avoid a late snack doesn't hold true for everyone, so be cognizant of how you feel.
Is It OK to Fall Asleep to the TV?
Many people feel that they need the TV on to fall asleep. Others continue to use their phones or other devices right up until lights out. Some developers have even created apps that are supposed to help you fall asleep fast and sleep deeper. Research suggests, though, that exposing your eyes to a bright screen shortly before bed can significantly disrupt your melatonin levels, making it difficult for you to fall asleep and stay asleep. Try getting into the habit of reading a book to wind down instead.
What About Exercise?
While you should never lose sleep in order to exercise, a regular routine of physical activity can help you sleep better. One large-scale NSF study found that participants who did a recommended 150 minutes of exercise every week had more restful sleep and felt better during the day. If you have trouble falling asleep after vigorous exercise, though, adjust your schedule so there's at least a few hours between your workout and bedtime.
To sum it up, getting the right sleep for you comes down to consistency, listening to your body, and adjusting accordingly. There's no cure-all or magical facts about sleep; you have to commit to getting better and work for it, just like with many other things in life.