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Putting sleep myths to bed

Guy Meadows debunks commonly-held beliefs about sleep and how it adds up

1. You can catch up on lost weekday sleep at the weekend

Unfortunately sleep cannot be ‘banked’ and it is not possible to catch up on lost weekday sleep at the weekend. One study found that sleeping six hours per night for 14 nights, compared with regularly getting nine hours per night, resulted in the equivalent reduction in mental and emotional performance as two full nights without sleep. If this wasn’t bad enough, the more sleep deprived the individuals became the less sleepy they reportedly felt, despite displaying worsening cognitive impairments. In short, when sleep deprived we’re unable to recognise the fact that we’re sleep deprived, much like when we’re drunk.

2. If you suffer from insomnia you need to fight it to ensure you get to sleep every night

The more you fight sleeplessness the more sleep will evade you. Sleep is a natural biological process that can’t be controlled and battling against it could be likened to an endless game of tug of war, which only wakes you up more. Giving yourself permission to be awake in the night therefore paradoxically moves you closer to sleep.

3. An hour before midnight is worth two after

This is not entirely true and is dependent on the natural timing of your sleep, dictated by your personal genetics. The bulk of our deep sleep is achieved in the first third of the night, which means that for many of us the hours before midnight are the deepest. However, if you have a tendency to go to bed after midnight then you will still get your deep sleep. It’s worth noting only 20% of the night is made up of deep sleep. Overall good-quality sleep is only achieved when you go through three sleep cycles of light, deep and R.E.M. sleep.

4. Everyone needs eight hours of sleep a night

How much sleep we need is determined by our genetics, with the average being seven to eight hours. However, the range a person can fall into is actually between four and 10 hours. The easiest way to know whether you’re getting enough sleep is whether you wake up refreshed. If not it could suggest you need more than you’re getting.

5. Normal sleepers don’t wake in the night

You sleep in cycles that last from 1.5 to two hours and, on average, you’ll have between four and five cycles per night. Night awakenings are actually believed to be an evolutionary mechanism designed to protect us from predatory danger. Worrying about work taps into this natural tendency, hence why we are most likely to find ourselves waking up during times of stress.

Guy Meadows is a sleep physiologist and founder of The Sleep School