Considering that we spend roughly one third of our lives asleep, it is amazing how little most people know about sleep. Learning to control your own sleep and knowing how your body and mind react to sleep can be very beneficial to your well-being.

As a starter, I present some common misconceptions and myths about the way sleep works.

The more I sleep, the better it is for me

Most people think more sleep is better. We see it as healthy to overindulge on sleep, which is probably related to the way our modern life styles encourages a lack of sleep.

Sleep is a need your body and mind has, just like food. Just like getting too little food is bad for your health, getting too little sleep is bad for your health. While most people are aware that eating too much in general or eating too much at once is bad for your health, not many people realize that sleeping too much can be bad for your body — especially sleeping too much at once.

This should not be as hard as it seems to figure out. Anyone who slept in on a weekend and woke up feeling stiff could relate to it,  but we generally view everything surrounding sleep as a mystery.

No matter how tired you are, learning to control the amount of sleep you get can make you feel much more alert and awake the next day. If you are feeling sleepy or tired, taking a nap in the afternoon is a much better cure.

Sleepy, tired… there’s no difference

Usually, no distinction is made between tired and sleepy. I would say that while being sleepy includes being tired, the opposite is not always true. Tiredness is the mind’s or body’s need for rest, which does not necessarily mean sleep. Sleepy on the other hand, is the distinct need for sleep.

Not being able to tell this difference is one reason people go to bed and fail to fall asleep (there are others, as will soon become clear). Sleep includes rest for both mind and body, and an unbalanced tiredness can be an insurmountable obstacle to getting restful sleep.

The lack of physical exercise can be one cause of these problems, as our modern life styles tend to lack moving around.

Caffeine makes me less tired

No. Caffeine makes you less sleepy! As you go through your day, body and mind will slowly start to become exhausted. There are ways to gain an energy boost (like a sugar rush), but these are always short and leave you feeling even more drained. There are no ways to stop this drain.

However, there are situations where you just need to (or want to) keep going despite this fatigue, and this is where caffeine can be extremely useful. Caffeine blocks out your sleepiness, preventing your body from falling asleep regardless of how tired you are getting (within limits). You will keep getting more tired, but be able to keep going without falling asleep or feeling drowsy.

Still, there are many people who can not get started without a cup of coffee or two. Why is this, if caffeine doesn’t make you less tired? The explanation comes in two parts:

  • Caffeine is addictive. The people who need 2 cups of coffee to get going in the morning need those cups because they have an addiction which demands the dose of caffeine is filled. Part of the excessive tiredness felt before those first cups of coffee is simply a withdrawal symptom.
  • Caffeine reduces sleep quality. The half-life of caffeine in the human body is normally around 5 hours — this means that 5 hours after you drank your coffee, half of the caffeine is still in your body. 10 hours after the cup, a quarter of the caffeine is still there.

These things together mean that for people addicted to caffeine (which means most people, really), the caffeine from coffee, tea or soda had during the day is still very much active around bed time. Since caffeine prevents sleeping, many people have problems falling asleep (feel familiar?)

These problems are usually blamed on a stressful life style or something else. It does not stop there, however. Since the caffeine is still active, it changes how your body sleeps, disrupting the balance between the different sleep phases and giving your mind less time to rest during the REM sleep phases. The end result is a less restful sleep that means you wake up feeling tired.

Quitting caffeine is somewhat difficult, takes about a week, and means you will increase your quality of sleep significantly, reducing how tired you feel overall. Interestingly, this also means you will need less sleep overall to feel rested.

I am either asleep or awake

We tend to view sleep as either happening or not happening, yet we are aware at some level that this is not true. Have you ever got up to take a shower early in the morning, only to feel like you wake up a second time when you step into the shower? This is because your mind was still partially asleep.

Sleeping means switching parts of our consciousness off. It sometimes takes time for us to switch all parts back on. This is why you can talk to someone who seems to be awake, only to have them not remember a thing afterward — parts of their brain was still asleep.

It can be incredibly hard for another person to tell if someone is fully awake or not — and it is hard even for ourselves to know, as the part of our brain that would react to us not being awake is still asleep. In fact, some people have such a slow start in the morning that their personality will seem to change during their first hour of wakefulness.

I woke up tired — I must not have slept enough

The quality of your sleep has an incredible impact on how rested you end up. It may be true that you did not sleep enough, but it may also be the case that you simply did not sleep well enough to get the rest you needed. This could be caused by any number of things, like caffeine disturbing your sleep phases, having nightmares or sleeping on an uncomfortable bed.

Another thing that greatly impacts how you feel is what phase of sleep you are in when you wake up. Waking up from deep sleep will make you feel groggy and tired, whereas waking up in REM sleep often means you feel like you had a dream interrupted. There are even “micro-awakenings” where your body has a natural exit point from sleep. Waking up during one of these can leave you with a magical sense of wonder about how you do not feel tired at all.

I’m at the mercy of sleep, I can’t control my quality of sleep

There are a number of things you can do to control the quality of sleep, and surprisingly few of them have anything to do with the sleep itself. Your sleep posture does affect your sleep… especially, one theory is that sleeping on your back can mean sleeping lighter, not falling into deep sleep as quickly as with other sleep postures. This is something I haven’t examined as much as I would like yet, myself.

Another thing that can affect your sleep quality is food. Eating just before you sleep tends to reduce sleep quality. The more you eat and the heavier food, the worse sleep quality. This is because your digestion will mean your body will not be able to shut down properly. On the other hand, trying to fall asleep while hungry can be difficult.

The easiest way to control  how tired you feel is the alarm clock you use to wake up, however. There are a number of gadgets you can buy that increase the chance that you will wake up feeling rested. I have used many of them, and I can tell you they really do make a difference.

Once I paid off my sleep debt I’m fine

The way our society works with a hard working, busy week followed by a weekend off has led some people to adopt a pattern of sleeping less during weeks, catching up by sleeping in o weekends. I used to do this myself for years, before I started studying sleep.

It seems to work — I would sleep 6 hours each night during the week, and around 10 or more on the weekend. Sure, I would be quite tired on Friday mornings, but not terribly so, since I would be getting almost all the sleep I needed.

The problem is that sleep deprivation has many subtle effects. One effect of this pattern is that your body will collect a long-term sleep debt. Sleep debt comes in two forms — short-term and long-term. Short-term sleep debt is what you solve by sleeping in on the weekends — the feeling of being tired will disappear and you will feel fine.

The long-term sleep debt is more devious, since you will never feel it directly and it is hard to connect it to the sleeping pattern. The most clear indication of long-term sleep debt is that your immune system has problems keeping up. Perhaps others comment on how you will often feel sick, catch colds and similar. This is a sign your body needs more rest.

Long-term sleep debt is simple to cure, however: get enough sleep every night for a month or so. It will let  your body rest enough to rebuild.

I need to sleep 8 hours every night — everyone does

Common wisdom says an adult will need at least eight hours of sleep per day. Reality is a lot more complicated than that, and the only way to find out how much sleep you need is by learning from experience. Never feel guilty for not sleeping “enough” — find out how much you require.

Depending on your life style and the way your body works, you may need as little as 6 hours or as much as 9. If you sleep a lot and still never feel rested, your problem is probably quality of sleep, not quantity of sleep.

The good news is that if you quit caffeine, learning how much sleep your body needs is extremely simple. Set your alarm clock for the same time every morning (yes, including the weekends). Then simply pay attention to when you get sleepy, and go to bed. Your body will adjust to the alarm clock and after a week or two you will have adapted to a pattern that tells you how much sleep you need.

Snoozing lets me feel more rested when I get up

The snooze time on modern alarm clocks is engineered to make sure you don’t fall back deeply asleep. This means that you don’t really get any rest during the snooze period… once your alarm clock wakes you up, you’ve lost the chance.

“But it feels better!”

Yes it does, which comes back to the way I mentioned that our brains wake up slowly — you simply allow your brain to slowly wake up with the constant interruptions by snoozing, to the point where you feel somewhat awake. The time is essentially wasted though, as you are not really getting any proper rest — you are better off getting up and accelerating the process of waking up.

The human body is adapted to sleep during the night

Our society is built around the cycle of day and night. For as long as we can remember in our history, people have lived by the daylight, before the invention of electric lighting. As our race evolved, farms were tended in daytime. It would make sense then to assume that our bodies have evolved to be active during daytime?

Still, this is a tiny moment in our history, and there are signs that we may have had a less strict way of life as cave men — that our bodies may not be wired to sleep through full nights, that we simply do so by cultural choice. It is likely that we slept when we felt tired, hunted or gathered when hungry and generally went about life in a more relaxed way before civilization. One sign is the way babies sleep, before being taught to sleep through a whole night.

Another interesting thing is how some countries have a siesta break during the day, where people sleep through the warmest part of the day. There are even those who practice “polyphasic sleep” — spreading sleep out in even chunks during the 24 hours of the day, making it more efficient as a bonus.

Considering how broken and stiff your body can feel when you wake up after a full night’s sleep, there might be something to it. I find this highly interesting — so interesting I tried to adapt to it once. I learned a lot about myself and about sleep, but ultimately failed adapting… but I do intend to try again.

Summary

If you found these misconceptions interesting, I suggest you also read my previous article on How to Stop Being Tired and Start Living with Energy.

Images by orangeacid.