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Sleep myths that could be affecting your health

In a recent study published in Sleep Health, researchers from the New York University School of Medicine in New York City identified 20 common sleep myths and found little or no evidence in support of these beliefs. These myths could potentially be affecting your overall health.

These sleep myths underwent an internet and literature review and a Delphi process (a systematic protocol for collecting expert opinions) with 10 sleep experts from the field of sleep medicine and research. The goal of the study was to change the general mindset about sleep, especially the belief that getting by on less sleep is desirable. The research occurred in 3 phases:

  • Phase 1 – focus groups
  • Phase 2 – email-based feedback to edit, add, or remove myths
  • Phase 3 – sleep experts rated myths based on falseness and public health significance, using a 5-point scale (1 being “not at all” and 5 being “extremely false”)
Sleeping woman on bed

Below are some of the common myths mentioned in the study:

1. Some people can get by on 5 hours or less of sleep a night for long periods with no impact on health

People who do not get more than 5 hours of sleep a night may suffer the health consequences of long-term sleep deficits. There is a link between habitual short sleep duration and increased cardiovascular and metabolic risk, as well as mental and immunological health disorders.

2. Your brain and body can learn to function just as well with less sleep.

Research suggests that people do adjust but it doesn’t mean their health will not be affected by the consistent lack of sleep.

3. Lying in bed with your eyes closed is almost as good as sleeping.

Your cardiovascular, metabolic, cognitive and endocrine (the endocrine system chemically controls the various functions of cells, tissues, and organs through the secretion of hormones) activities are very different during wakefulness and non-rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.

Rebecca Robbins, a key investigator in this study, said: “Lying in bed for long periods when you can’t sleep is basically the same as going to the gym and standing on the treadmill and not moving. And remaining in bed while wishing for sleep can promote anxiety around going to bed each night. This anxiety is common among insomniacs.

To help yourself fall asleep, find a calm spot or relax and wind down with a book or meditative music. Return to the bed only when you are feeling sleepy.

4. Exercise within 4 hours of bedtime will disturb sleep.

There is no conclusive evidence that vigorous nighttime exercise affects sleep. If you find it difficult to sleep after vigorous exercises, consider doing low impact exercises or yoga instead of running 3 miles on the treadmill.

5. Adults sleep more as they get older.

More research needs to be done to determine if older adults need less sleep than younger adults.

6. Drinking alcohol before bed can improve your sleep.

Drinking may help people get to sleep; however, it is associated with greater sleep disturbance later in the sleep cycle. The researchers wrote: “Across a number of different studies and doses, overall, alcohol has a negative overall impact on sleep, delaying the onset of REM sleep. Alcohol consumption has also been found to worsen sleep apnea symptoms.”

Researchers concluded that sleep hygiene should be a part of your health and wellness discussion with your doctors.

In arthritis health, sleep is closely associated with fatigue. In an article published in Clinical Care in the Rheumatic Diseases, Basia Belza and Kori Dewing concluded that 80-100% of people living with certain types of inflammatory arthritis, including rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and fibromyalgia, live with fatigue. Disturbed sleep, often caused by the pain associated with arthritis, is a cause of arthritis-related fatigue.

Two teenage girls lying on bed

Tips for better sleep

Common sense tells us that getting enough sleep is one key way to minimize fatigue. Often, though, getting to sleep, and staying that way, can be very difficult, especially for people who live with arthritis. Here is a list of some of the things you can do to help you sleep better:

  • Keep a regular sleep-wake pattern. Try to go to bed at the same time each night, and wake up around the same time each morning.
  • Avoid alcohol and caffeine in the late afternoon and evening.
  • If you need to nap during the day, keep it short; under an hour is best.
  • Keep your bedroom only for sleeping – avoid activities like watching television, eating, and working on your computer in your bedroom.
  • Exercise regularly, but avoid doing so for at least three hours before bed, as exercise can be stimulating, as opposed to relaxing.
  • Keep your bedroom cool and dark.
  • Fresh air is important; if possible, sleep with a window slightly open.
  • Take time to relax before bed-take a warm bath, listen to soothing music, drink chamomile tea, read a relaxing book.
  • Make sure your mattress and pillows are of a firmness which is comfortable to you. Experiment with pillow type and positioning to find a set-up which works for you. Look into the many different types of pillows on the market, including wedge-shaped pillows and body pillows.
  • Control your pain at night time; talk to your doctor about adjusting your pain medication schedule so that your pain is relieved at night.

Click on this issue of JointHealth™ insight to learn more about sleep, fatigue, and arthritis.