There are many myths about sleep that are taught to people in childhood, and these can undermine healthy sleep habits in adulthood—plus promote anxiety and depression. Insomnia occurs in most people at some time or another, and popular sleep myths can interfere with the ability of children and adults to sleep. The following are five false (but popular) sleep myths.
First Myth—Alcohol Consumption Promotes Sleep
Imbibing a daiquiri or mimosa before bedtime is a bad idea, because mixed drinks contain sugar—especially those made with fruit. Meanwhile, a 12 oz. glass of beer typically contains 10-20 grams of carbohydrate (and carbohydrates are converted to sugar in the bloodstream).
Since the function of sugar in human physiology is to provide quick energy, alcohol consumption can interfere with sleep. Additionally, an alcoholic beverage takes the liver approximately one to 1.5 hours to process completely (according to the Diabetes Teaching Center of UCSF). People who experience insomnia may utilize alcohol in a false belief that this will be sleep-enhancing. The truth is that it will probably exacerbate the insomnia.
Second Myth—Counting Sheep Promotes Sleep
The counting of sheep has been suggested to many persons who are unable to fall asleep. This is not shown to foster sleep by itself, as the determining factor is the relationship to a pleasant memory. If someone has a negative memory related to farm animals, counting sheep may actually produce anxiety. However, the underlying “truth” behind this popular belief is that a pleasant memory can promote sleep by releasing serotonin in the brain.
Third Myth—Self-Sexual Activities Cause Insomnia
For hundreds of years, adolescents have been taught that self-sexual activities (such as masturbation) cause sleep disorders and worse. The underpinnings of this popular view were based on preventing sexual activities outside of marriage. Likewise, the belief that self-sexual activities would lead to deviance and adultery were a major basis for spread of this myth. As a consequence, healthy self-sexual exploration by adolescents was stifled—leading to shame and anxiety disorders in adulthood.
Some self-sexual activities promote sleep, as orgasm releases endorphins and physical tension. Additionally, nocturnal emissions are common in sleep per the Kinsey Report (as described in a research article published in Sleep).
Fourth Myth—Nightly Sleeping Pills Aid Healthy Sleep
The nightly ingestion of sleeping pills has been used by people with insomnia. Prescription of benzodiazepines have been provided as a short-term sleep aid. However, long-term use can result in addiction (per an article in Psychology Today). Diazepines can also interfere with REM sleep (that is necessary for dreaming and rejuvenating sleep). Therefore, individuals with insomnia are better off with engaging in natural methods of inducing sleep—and attempt to avoid a reliance on sleeping pills for more than a few nights.
Fifth Myth—Exercise Before Bed in Insomniacs will Prevent Sleep
Performing an exercise routine before bed will actually improve the ability to fall asleep and to remain asleep (according to the Sleep Foundation). There is no evidence that vigorous exercise before bedtime interferes with sleep. For people with insomnia, sleep apnea—a disorder involving obstruction of the airway—may be the underlying problem. Therefore, individuals with chronically disturbed sleep need to be treated by a healthcare provider who understands the relationship of obstructive sleep apnea to complaints of insomnia.