Is "Sleep Debt" Really A Thing And Other Sleep Myths That Need Busting

Photo: Siebe Warmoeskerken
According to the British Sleep Council (yes it's a real thing), 32% of us struggle to sleep well.
This is not good.
What's more worrying is that 49% of us have never taken steps to help ourselves sleep better.
But where to start? The internet is very confusing when it comes to searching for what really helps you sleep, so, if you do want to improve, how are you supposed to know where to start?
We spoke to Professor Colin Espie, a world sleep expert based at the University of Oxford and cofounder of Sleepio.com to find out which sleep facts are worth paying attention to and which are actually a big pile of rubbish.
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Is sleep debt a real thing?
For most of us, the number of hours we sleep on a weeknight compared to a weekend night differs wildly. From Monday to Friday, I can get as little as four hours of sleep a night (mainly due to not being a responsible grown-up) but come the weekend, I can literally sleep until the cows come home, break into my room and do a little dance on my bed.
In my head, I’m 'making up' the sleep on the weekend that I didn’t get during the week. “You probably needed it”, people say about lie-ins on Saturday. But did I? And am I actually managing to cheat my weekday sleep deficit?
Well actually, kind of, says Colin, reassuring me that everyone has a bad night’s sleep from time to time, thanks to daily stressors. “Research suggests that we need to make up less than one third of the hours of sleep lost,” Colin says. “Furthermore, the sleep we get on 'recovery nights' may be deeper and more restorative. In other words, nature doesn’t let us down entirely but tries to play catch-up by making the most of the sleep we do get.” Top work, nature, top work.
Do older people really need less sleep?
You know how your nana, despite having nothing to do that day except a quick nip to Asda, will wake up at 6am every day? On the other hand, when you were a teenager, you could happily have slept until 1pm every day.
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Do you really need less sleep as you get older? Well, according to Colin, once you’re out of teenagerdom (when you do actually need more sleep), your sleep need won't differ that much. "Older people get and take more naps,” he explains. "Sleep also tends to be lighter and more broken later in life.”
How much damage is the blue light on our phone doing to our sleep really?
The way people talk about the blue tinted light from your phone screen, you’d think it was the worst thing in the world.
Sadly, though, for those of you who like to browse Instagram pre-bed, it turns out it could actually affect your sleep significantly. “Studies have shown that computer use at night may inhibit the production of melatonin,” says Colin, referring to the hormone involved in the timing and regulation of sleep. “This can leave us feeling more alert. [The studies have] localised the greatest effect to blue light emitted from computer screens and handheld devices.”
In short, ditch the phone before bed. Really.
Is just lying in bed being ‘peaceful’ a good alternative when you can't sleep?
If you really can’t sleep, people say that instead of jumping on your phone (see above) or getting up for a walk, instead you should just lie there and be 'peaceful'. TBH though, just lying in bed seems more stress-inducing than getting up and doing something else – so what’s the answer?
“Despite the best planning in the world, sometimes sleep just won’t come,” says Colin. “If you’re awake for more than about quarter of an hour, the best thing you can do is get up and out of your bedroom.” He adds that this means that, in your brain, your bedroom will remain a place for sleep and, next time you come to go to bed, it is more likely to trigger a rapid “sleep response”.
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If the thought of getting out of a lovely warm bed when you can’t sleep is daunting, then Colin’s got a few tips on how to make it easier. “Prepare for these wakings,” he says. “Leave the heating on, and your favourite books out. Prepare a comfy chair in the living room so you can head there on autopilot.”
Did Margaret Thatcher really get by on four hours' sleep a night? Why can’t I?
Loads of successful people claim they get by on very little sleep – both Margaret Thatcher and Donald Trump have claimed four hour stints of sleep were enough for them. Bill Clinton went for five hours. On the other end of the spectrum Arianna Huffington and Barack Obama both try for up to eight hours a night. Mariah Carey claims she needs 15 hours.
“The number of hours sleep you need is as individual as your shoe size.” Says Colin. “Don’t assume you need the often quoted 7-8 hours.” In fact, he says, that for some people, a shorter sleep may mean a better quality sleep.” And vice versa.
Basically, sleep however much you want.
Alcohol - is it really the big sleep disrupter we keep hearing about?
Plenty of people avoid drinking during the week to protect their sleep patterns. Other people say they need a glass of red wine in the evening to help them unwind and eventually sleep. But who is right?
“Alcohol works as a sedative so while it could work as a short-term, acute measure at the start of the night, it’s not going to help you improve your sleep.” And, Colin continues, too much will lead to a disrupted sleep leaving you waking up feeling unrefreshed.
“Alcohol-induced sleep is not normal sleep.” Colin says. “Using alcohol as a sleep aid is not a good idea.” Its beneficial effects for inducing sleep tend to be short-lived, as tolerance develops quickly and it can exacerbate underlying sleep disorders.”
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