Believing myths about sleep can be harmful to your insomnia recovery. It’s time to challenge them.

So far we’ve talked about how your mind can trick you into believing things that aren’t true. Now let’s dive into common myths about sleep. These are so prevalent that you might not even realise they are part of your ‘common knowledge’ that is just straight up wrong. 

Myth 1: You can sleep hack

I went off in week 2 on why I think sleep hacking (at least as described by new-agey/new-riche types) is utter bullshit. Let me reiterate again: anyone who says you can get by on very little sleep in small increments is either lying, hasn’t done it long enough to see the ill-effects, or is a money grubbing shill. Very few ‘entrepreneurs’ make me as mad as people who sell the idea that if only you didn’t sleep you’d be successful. 

Again, these ludicrous schedules not only mean you never get enough sleep. They also mean you need to sleep on demand which someone with insomnia can’t do. Nor is it something you want to do. People feel rested when they sleep in one consistent block of time. Period.

Myth 2: Successful people don’t sleep

I SCREAM internally when I hear someone say, ‘well Obama doesn’t sleep’ and ‘Steve Jobs didn’t need sleep’. Like, alright Elon, go back to inventing your starships and portals then.

For the rest of us normies that want to live a healthy and even financially successful life, it involves rest. There is nothing – literally NO STUDIES – that correlates a lack of sleep with massive amounts of success. None.

If there is, let me know and maybe I’ll change my opinion. But if you are holding onto insomnia just because you think your erratic schedule makes you better somehow, just know you’d do even better for yourself if you slept. 

“We think, mistakenly, that success is the result of the amount of time we put in at work, instead of the quality of time we put in. Sleep, or how little of it we need, has become a symbol of our prowess. We make a fetish of not getting enough sleep, and we boast about how little sleep we get. I once had dinner with a man who bragged to me that he’d gotten only four hours of sleep the night before. I resisted the temptation to tell him that the dinner would have been a lot more interesting if he had gotten five.” -Arianna Huffington of Huffington Post

Myth 3 is one of the most common myths about sleep: You need to sleep 8 hours

cat sleeping under a white blanket

Let’s look at the other side of the coin of the previous misconception about sleep. It is one of the most pervasive myths about sleep.

While you aren’t superior because of your lack of sleep, you aren’t inferior either for not sleeping 8 hours. Many people, including those who have insomnia, think they need 8 hours of sleep to feel rested1. And when they don’t achieve 8 hours of sleep, they feel like they’ve failed.

The 8 hour myth has put unnecessary stress on a lot of people. I’m here to tell you right now that you don’t necessarily need 8 hours. 

It’s true that most adults need between 7-9 hours per night. The average is actually 7, and most adult’s nightly sleep averages between 6-8 hours. In fact, a 2013 Gallup poll shows that 40% of adults sleep less than 7 hours and 75% sleep less than 82

It should be noted however that teenagers generally need at least 8.5 hours of sleep, and upwards of 103. So if you’re underage, your aim should be at least 8.5 hours. If you are the parent of someone who is underage, don’t wake them because you think they’re lazy. They literally need it for physical growth and brain development. 

Myth 4 is one of the most jarring myths about sleep: You’ll die sooner if you don’t sleep well

There is a common misconception that you are more likely to die an early death by simply not sleeping well. While it’s true you are more prone to accidents when sleep deprived4, you will NOT die an earlier death just because you aren’t sleeping well. 

Research involving millions of people from at least 35 scientific studies demonstrates that we do not need eight hours of sleep to – well – not die5. Here is the j-shaped graph that shows our mortality is at its lowest overall around the 7 hour mark. It also shows we’re better off sleeping 5 or 6 hours rather than 9 or more. 

a J graph demonstrating that one of the myths around sleep (that you'll die sooner if you don't sleep) is false.

“Figure 1. The dose-response analysis between nighttime sleep duration and risk of all-cause mortality. The solid line and the long dash line represent the estimated relative risk and its 95% confidence interval.”6.

Myth 5: You’ll gain weight if you don’t sleep well

One of the more common myths about sleep is that you are more likely to gain weight if you don’t sleep. While it’s true that not sleeping can mess with some hormones around hunger, we are more likely to gain weight just because we’re awake for longer. As a result, we are more prone to eating 7. Also, what makes us more likely to gain weight is it’s harder to have energy to get up and exercise8. We’re simply more sedentary and therefore what we eat might be too much when we reduce our activity significantly. 

Myth 6 is one of the most infuriating myths about sleep: You’re lucky if you don’t sleep

Ok, so again I get heated when I hear this. When I had insomnia, I was literally on the verge of suicide because of a lack of sleep. I had a few people say that I was lucky because if it were them, they’d “gEt So MuCh DoNe”.

LUCKY. Like, ok Kyle. Try sleeping for a broken 0-6 hours per night for four years and see how much you get done. 

If you’re a normal sleeper that happens to wake up earlier than normal, you can accomplish something in that time. But someone deep into insomnia is not in the mind state to suddenly pick themselves up by the bootstraps and accomplish massive goals. 

So while insomnia isn’t some massive curse, it’s most certainly not a blessing either. 

Myth 7: You’ll be mentally sluggish if you don’t sleep enough

a koala sleeping in a tree

The cognitive toll sleep deprivation has on you depends on you as a person9. It also depends on how much sleep was actually lost, and how often it happens. Generally elderly people are affected the most by sleep loss, and women can endure sleep loss more than men but recover slower. 

It also affects some areas of your life, but generally won’t affect others. Studies show that decision making, planning tasks, and rule-based reasoning are generally unaffected by inadequate sleep10. Conversely, creative and innovative thinking, and memory tasks do decline from lack of sleep11

Based on personal experience, the cognitive effects of sleep loss also depend on the situation. For example, you are more likely to be on your A-game as a new, sleep deprived parent looking after a newborn. This is because of the motivation and obligation of parenthood. Conversely, if you don’t sleep and have to deal with boring meetings, you’re going to have a more difficult time. 

Myth 8 is a one of the little known myths about sleep: All sleep is equal

Here’s the deal – most adults need 7 – 9 hours of sleep per night to feel their best the next day. However, there is a concept called “core sleep”. This is a 5-6 hour period of sleep where we get nearly all of our deep sleep stages in, and about half of our REM sleep12. These stages (stages 3, 4, and 5) are the most important in restoring our energy.

It has also been shown that sleep does not have to happen continuously. For example, you can sleep for 3 hours at the beginning of the night, wake up for a few hours in the middle of the night, and fall back asleep for 2-3 hours early in the morning. Your body would still get its core sleep in because our brains are hardwired to do so. It’s not optimal of course, but you at least get the fundamental parts of sleep.

Myth 9: Perceived amount of sleep vs. the actual amount you got

Remember in week 1 when I mentioned that those with insomnia think they’re not sleeping during stage 2 of sleep? What this means is, you’re likely getting more sleep than you think. It also means you overestimate how long it takes you to get to sleep. This is because stage 2 happens shortly after falling asleep. 

Myth 10: You will be in a bad mood

Losing sleep does make it more difficult to control your mood13. However, if you’re in a bad mood after a poor night of sleep, it’s more likely due to having negative thoughts around sleep rather than any actual biological changes. This means if you reduce your negative thoughts around sleep, you will reduce the effects of insomnia on your daytime mood. 

If you don’t believe me, think of the last time you woke up after a sleepless night and thought “today is going to suck”. And then that day did suck. Conversely, think of when you lost sleep before a vacation or because of a fun party. Your next day may be sluggish and tired, but it isn’t nearly as terrible. 

Myth 11: Go to bed earlier tonight if you didn’t sleep well last night

As already mentioned, going to bed earlier is one of the worst things you can do while working on insomnia. Your job right now (and forevermore) is to disassociate your bed from stress and sleeplessness. And to do that, you must go to bed at the same time every night to train your body. 

If you spend MORE time in bed not sleeping, you are reinforcing the subconscious belief that you should be even more alert when going to bed. Please, just don’t do that. 

Myth 12 is a one of those sleep myths that won’t die: You can turn yourself into a short sleeper

Can you turn yourself into a short sleeper? I get asked this all the time by insomniacs and great sleepers alike. The former wants to see if they’ll ever be able to feel normal on an erratic schedule. The latter are naive type-As that want to “get more done” and have no idea what sleep deprivation is really like. 

As mentioned previously, humans are wired for 7-9 hours per sleep in adulthood. The only people who feel rested on less than 7 hours are those with a mutated ADBR114 or DEC2 gene15.

So how do you know if you have that particular mutation? There’s two ways:

  1. Go to a genetic counselor and ask them to test you for it, and/or
  2. Sleep consistently 6 hours or less per night and see if you feel refreshed and energised

That’s it. There’s no way to turn yourself into a short sleeper. 

📍 Quest #1

Write down your misconceptions.

Which of the above misconceptions do you hold? Are there any others you can think of? 

I have listed some common misconceptions around sleep, but there are so many out there a book could be written about them. For example, many people have the misconception that a full moon or star alignments cause sleep disturbances, or if they don’t perform certain actions (e.g., having the radio on a certain station or the TV at a certain volume) they won’t sleep. 

Write down any beliefs you have around sleep, even if you don’t think they are a misconception.

When you are done, research why you are potentially wrong. When I say research, I mean don’t just Google it and find headlines in the top results. Look for and read multiple scientific studies from sites that publish reputable peer-reviewed research. See if your assumptions are confirmed or refuted.