Six Misconceptions about Sleep and Insomnia

Most of us know that drinking coffee after dinner will probably disrupt our sleep and that regular exercise will improve it. But some ideas I see tossed out about sleep and insomnia are not quite accurate. Here are six misconceptions followed by information that is evidence based.

insomnia | many people have beliefs and attitudes about sleep that are not factualMost of us know that drinking coffee after dinner will probably disrupt our sleep and that regular exercise will improve it. But some ideas I see tossed out about sleep and insomnia are not quite accurate. Here are six misconceptions followed by information that is evidence based. Find sources by clicking the links in the blog.

Insomnia mainly has to do with a lack of REM sleep (when most dreaming occurs).

Overall, studies comparing people with insomnia to normal sleepers show that insomnia is associated with reductions in both deep sleep and REM sleep. Deep sleep enables the consolidation of memories for factual information and events, and persistent insomnia tends to interfere with this process. Shortened REM sleep, on the other hand, leads to alterations in the processing of emotion—another symptom of insomnia.

The fact that I don’t remember my dreams means I don’t get enough REM sleep.

No evidence shows that sufficient REM sleep is tied to the remembering of dreams. What does seem to be true is that people who remember dreams typically wake up more often during REM sleep than people who don’t remember dreams. But these awakenings are so brief that the dreamer may not be aware of them.

I need several hours of deep sleep to function well.

Young children spend about a third of the night in deep sleep. But the amount of deep sleep humans get declines dramatically during adolescence. The average middle-aged adult spends about 15 percent of the night in deep sleep, and older adults may get as little as 10 percent. As critical as deep sleep is to our ability to function, it accounts for a small percent of the total sleep we get. Our descents into deep sleep occur mostly in the first part of the night.

Rates of insomnia are highest among people in high-status, high-stress jobs.

Stress has a huge impact on sleep, and high stress reactivity may be a defining characteristic of people who develop insomnia. But all else equal, people who earn large salaries are not the ones most likely to toss and turn at night. People of low socioeconomic status with lower education levels are more vulnerable to insomnia than surgeons and CEOs.

Waking up for a stretch in the middle of the night is a sign that something is wrong with my sleep.

Not necessarily. Historical evidence suggests that until the widespread use of electric lighting, this segmented sleep pattern was not unusual. People went to bed soon after nightfall and woke up later to make love, tend to animals and crops, or simply lie awake with their minds adrift. Then they went back to sleep for the rest of the night.

Being awake in the middle of the night may be inconvenient, and with strategic use of light and sleep compression you may be able to whittle that wakefulness down. But if you’re functioning OK in the daytime, being awake at night does not signal something amiss.

If my sleep is lousy, I should make a point of going to bed earlier.

If you have insomnia, going to bed early will likely make the problem worse. The arousal system is fully engaged in the hours leading up to bedtime, early research has shown: most people have a hard time falling asleep in the evening. Here’s a better rule of thumb: If your sleep is lousy, make a point of staying up until you feel sleepy. Only then should you go to bed.

Questions or doubts about sleep or insomnia? Share them here, and I’ll do my best to respond and clarify.

Awake in the Middle of the Night

The bed—so sleep experts maintain—should only be used for sleep and sex. People who can’t sleep should get up and do something: iron shirts, look at picture books, plan a backyard stupa. Anything, for God’s sake, but toss and turn among the sheets.

I know I should follow this advice. But every fiber of my body cries out for staying flat on my back.

The bed—so sleep experts maintain—should only be used for sleep and sex. People who can’t sleep should get up and do something: iron shirts, look at picture books, plan a backyard stupa. Anything, for God’s sake, but toss and turn among the sheets.

This bit of advice has always put me off. Especially when I wake up in the middle of the night and can’t fall back to sleep, I’m bone-tired and brain-dead. I can barely face getting out from under the warmth of the covers to go to the bathroom, let alone contemplate walking downstairs, turning on a light and settling down with a book. Every fiber of my body cries out for staying flat on my back.

Making Hay While the Darkness Reigns

But I’ve met insomnia sufferers of the middle-of-the-night-awakening type who decided at some point that they were not going to take their wakefulness lying down.

My former colleague Claudia is a journalist with a greeting card business on the side. She used to lie awake fretting when she couldn’t fall back to sleep. Now when she wakes up at 1 a.m., she goes upstairs to make birthday cards.

“It’s like playing around,” she says. “It takes my mind off everything, and sometimes I think it helps me mellow out a little, too.” After working a couple of hours on her cards – an activity she says is fun but not cerebral – she crawls back into bed again and can usually get a few more hours of shut-eye. She’d rather deal with insomnia this way than take sleeping pills.

Marty is another example. Self-employed, he goes to bed around 9 p.m. and uses the time he’s awake in the middle of the night to work on an online newsletter. “I do my best writing between 2 and 5 in the morning, “ Marty says. Then he goes back to sleep for another hour and a half. He’d like to sleep more, and to get all his sleep at one go, but his body seems to have different needs.

Bimodal Sleep in Nights Past

Historian A. Roger Ekirch claims this pattern of broken sleep was actually common before 1800, when people lived without artificial lighting in their homes. Ekirch has found several references to nights in which people took their “first” sleep from about 9 or 10 p.m. to somewhere past midnight. Then they got up to brew a tub of ale or chat with neighbors, or they stayed in bed to pray, make love or meditate on dreams. At last they fell into a “second” or “morning” sleep that lasted until dawn.

Experiments conducted by sleep researcher Thomas Wehr in the 1990s suggest this bimodal pattern of sleep is the pattern humans might well fall into today in the absence of artificial lighting. Our modern lights-out period lasts for seven or eight hours a day year-round. But in temperate climates in the pre-industrial era, during the winter months when darkness lasted 14 hours, people spent a lot more time in rest and relaxation.

When Wehr re-created these conditions by giving his experimental subjects a 14-hour sleep window, they settled into a routine in which their sleep fell into two distinct periods. One came at the beginning of the “biological” night and one at the end, with a period or periods of quiet wakefulness in between. Wehr concluded that bimodal sleep may actually be more “natural” than the consolidated sleep period that is the norm today.

The notion may not be reassuring to insomniacs unable to turn middle-of-the-night awakenings to their advantage, or whose work or families demand that they be up at the crack of dawn. Nor does it jibe with the thinking of most sleep experts, who suggest that a consolidated period of sleep is for the insomniac the Holy Grail. But if segmented sleep really does come more naturally to some poor sleepers, then the Claudias and Martys may be better off going with the flow.