Why is counting sheep such an effective method at battling insomnia? Well, here's the thing: It isn't. The "fact" about those fluffy grazers is little more than unsubstantiated nonsense. And the realm of rest is filled with many such false claims. It makes sense, as so many things about sleep are steeped in ambiguity. Still, in the effort of pushing the needle forward, here are nine common misconceptions about sleep and why they're false. Because ignorance leads to insomnia.
1. Alcohol Helps You Sleep Better
Many people enjoy a nice glass of wine or whiskey before going to bed, and although it’s true that booze before bedtime reduces sleep latency (meaning, it’s easier to fall asleep), that doesn’t mean the sleep quality is any good.
Alcohol is a depressant and therefore increases non-REM sleep and reduces REM sleep. Not getting enough REM sleep has been linked to migraines and poor emotional stability. In the second half of the night, the body compensates for decreased REM sleep by inducing longer periods of the stage, which disturbs the sleep cycle and results in morning crankiness.
2. Laying in Bed is Just As Good As Sleeping
Although it may seem hard to believe, there is a perception among some people that laying in bed for long periods of time is just as helpful to the body as if they were asleep.
“Sleeping is a different state of being than resting,” says Stephen Scharf, director of the Sleep Disorders Center at the University of Maryland Medical Center, in an interview with Van Winkle’s. “During sleep, there are a number of neurologic and reconstructive processes that don’t go on during the wake state.”
For example, the fluctuations of heart rate and blood pressure levels that occur during sleep are important for promoting heart health. Also, the immune system produces hormones such as cytokines that help fight infections like the cold and flu.
3. You Should Never Wake A Sleepwalker
Maybe cartoons are to blame. Or perhaps it stems from the belief that sleepwalking was once associated with demonic possession. But this waking rule has somehow come to serve as accepted fact when dealing with night-wanderers. It’s simply not true.
In an interview with Scientific American, Michael Salemi of the California Center for Sleep Disorders said that waking a sleepwalker may distress them, but that’s about it. “You can startle sleepwalkers, and they can be very disoriented when you wake them up and they can have violent, or confused reactions,” Salemi said, “but I have not heard of a documented case of someone dying from being woken up.”
4. You Can Lose the Ability to Sleep
One of the more striking effects of insomnia is that it makes sufferers feel that their body has somehow forgotten how to rest. But if you’re alive, you can sleep. In reality, Scharf says these people have a condition called sleep state misperception which means they think they’re awake when they have actually been sleeping.
“When you’re sleeping, you don’t sense the passage of time,” Scharf says. “They think they never sleep, which is not true.
If you really were going through extremely long stretches without any sleep, you would know because, well, you’d be dead.
5. Spicy, Savory Foods Will Give You Nightmares
The belief that certain foods, such as cheese, hot peppers and other spicy dishes, will result in nightmares has gone back centuries (Ebenezer Scrooge even blamed cheese on his bad dreams in A Christmas Carol).
Cheese and spicy foods eaten before bed definitely cause restless stomachs, however, which might be why the myth began in the first place.
No legitimate study has ever proven a relationship between certain foods and bad dreams. More realistically, the belief that certain foods cause nightmares is probably what causes them.
6. Old People Don’t Need to Sleep As Much As Young People
“Seinfeld” fans will remember one of the most famous episodes, “The Pen,” in which Jerry Seinfeld’s septuagenarian mother exclaims “We don’t even sleep!” when asked why she’s up so early.
The joke relates to the idea that senior citizens’ sleep cycles require less sleep than younger people. Annndd it’s false. All adults, regardless of age, need to clock somewhere between seven to nine hours of sleep per night.
What is true is that people generally have a harder time falling asleep as they grow older. This is due to medical conditions, changes in their circadian rhythms and the fact that less time is spent in deep sleep as the body ages. Regardless, they still need that healthy amount of seven to eight hours.
7. Masturbation Helps You Sleep
When men and women orgasm, they release hormones such as oxytocin and vasopressin which are connected with sleep and relaxation. Be as it may, there has never been any scientific proof that some pre-bed diddling lets someone fall asleep faster
Researchers behind a 1985 study, for example, performed polygraphs on five men and five women following the big O. The scientists found that there was no difference in their sleep patterns depending on whether they masturbated or not.
One theory posed by sex researcher Nicole Prause is that people often fall asleep quickly after masturbating because they associate it with bedtime routines.
8. Counting Sheep Helps You Fall Asleep
If counting sheep is your go-to technique for dozing off, you might want to consider banishing them back to the farm where they belong. Perhaps the most accepted method of inducing sleepiness, counting sheep is actually a terrible bedtime routine.
This stems from a 2002 study which had participants try several different distraction techniques as insomnia remedies. Those who pictured sheep actually had a harder time dozing off, the researchers found, while those who pictured calming images such as crackling fireplaces fell asleep much quicker.
So why did people start counting sheep in the first place? It likely originates back to the shepherds of ancient Britain. They had a tallying system called “yan, yan tethera” to keep track of their ewes and rams that would wander off. Somehow, people started interpreting that system as a solid nighttime solution.
9. You Swallow Spiders As You Sleep
Many people believe that they ingest an assortment of critters as they sleep. But this is simply, well, too hard to swallow. In an interview with Scientific American, Rod Crawford, arachnid curator at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle, explained that spiders typically avoid sleeping humans because their vibrations send off the message of danger.
Perhaps more importantly, there is no prey to be found in a human’s bed, so spiders wouldn’t want to be hanging out there anyway.
According to Snopes, the only reason this myth exists is because Lisa Holst, a columnist for the publication PC Professional, wrote an article in 1993 with a list of made-up facts to demonstrate how gullible people are. One of her “facts” was that the average person swallows eight spiders per year.