Sleep is a critical part of emotional health, and twenty-five million Americans are missing out on a blissful slumber. Former Savvy Psychologist host Dr. Jade Wu brings us a special mini-series based on her new book, Hello Sleep: the Science and Art of Overcoming Insomnia Without Medications. You can check out all three parts of this special series in this article. In part one, we’re starting with the top 4 myths we hear about sleep.
Hello Sleep #1: 4 Biggest Myths about Sleep
The 4 biggest myths we hear about sleep
This is what William Shakespeare said about sleep: “Innocent sleep. Sleep that soothes away all our worries… [and] heals hurt minds. Sleep, the main course in life’s feast, and the most nourishing.”
A lot has changed about our lifestyles since Shakespeare’s day, but what he said about sleep is more true than ever. Now we know that sleep doesn’t just feel good—it’s also crucial for every aspect of our health. It cleans our brains, heals our injuries, fortifies our immunity, regulates our emotions, cements our memories, soothes our pain… there’s nothing in our bodies and brains that doesn’t depend on good sleep. That’s why when you haven’t slept well, you’re cranky and dragging and constantly misplacing your keys.
That’s also why people are paying more attention to sleep. There are technological advances in sleep gadgets every year. Jennifer Aniston and other celebrities are speaking out about their struggles with sleep problems. TikTok videos of sleep hacks are going viral. In 2020, the sleep aid industry was worth $81 billion… and that’s projected to reach $113 billion by 2025.
Part of the problem might be that we are bombarded with headlines and social media about sleep hacks and sleep tips, and it’s hard to sort out what is true and what is not. Does Melatonin work? Just how much deep sleep should I be getting? Is it bad that I always wake up at 2:00 AM?
Today, to set the record straight, we’re going to pick apart 4 of the biggest myths about sleep so you can stop wondering and get back to snoozing.
You can listen to episode one of our minis-series using the player at the top of this article or by clicking in the player here:
Myth #1: I should be able to sleep through the night.
From the moment a baby is born, everybody around them prays for the day it sleeps through the night. And in adulthood, that’s what we expect of ourselves, too. So many of my patients are upset that they wake up at night…some of them even stop drinking fluids after dinner so they don’t have to pee overnight, hoping this will mean they finally get the unbroken sleep they dream of.
But guess how many times a healthy adult sleeper wakes up during a typical night. Not once… not twice… but about ten to sixteen times!
That’s right, it’s totally normal to wake up around a dozen times, though most of those we don’t remember because they’re so brief. But not-so-brief awakenings can be normal, too. In fact, in pre-industrial Europe, people used to get up for an hour or two in the middle of the night to do chores, sing songs, and even visit neighbors, before going back to a “second sleep.” (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18680884/)
Waking up at night only becomes a problem in two situations. First, if a sleep disorder or other medical condition wakes you up much more often than usual, your sleep quality will be negatively affected. For example, if someone has severe sleep apnea, their brain could be waking them up to breathe every two minutes (or even more frequently) throughout the whole night. Second, if someone wakes up a normal number of times, but starts to think of waking up as a problem, their worry might start to keep them awake for longer and longer, which causes even more frustration, which leads to more time awake at night… and ultimately this vicious cycle turns into chronic insomnia.
The best way to tell if you need to worry about your night wakings is by how well you feel during the day. If you function well, feel awake and alert most of the time, and can fall asleep well most of the time… you’re probably okay. Listen to your body, though, if it tells you that you’re not getting enough quality sleep—you’re nodding off when you shouldn’t be, you’re irritable or foggy, you’re dragging your feet all day… then it’s worth revisiting your sleep habits or checking with a healthcare professional.
Myth #2: I should be getting deep sleep instead of light sleep.
If you have an Apple Watch or Fitbit or other wearable that tracks sleep, take a look at how much deep sleep you got last night. How do you feel about this number? A lot of people who come to sleep doctors for advice are worried that it’s too low. They ask me, “Shouldn’t I be getting way more deep sleep? Like, as close to 100% as possible?”
That would be like saying that your diet should consist of 100% protein. Not necessary, and not healthy! In fact, only about 15%-20% of your night should be deep sleep. About half the night should be light sleep, and a quarter should be REM. There should be a few percentage points of being awake, too.
This way, you get a balanced sleep diet, with each stage of sleep doing what it’s best at—deep sleep does the janitorial work of cleaning your brain and releasing growth hormones, light sleep helps to rest your body and solidify what you learned during the day, and REM sleep regulates your emotions and memories. All of these stages are important, so “deep” doesn’t necessarily mean “better.” And the best news is that you don’t have to manage the portion sizes for each stage of sleep! Your brain will automatically adjust how much you get of each depending on your needs of this moment in your life.
Myth #3: Melatonin is harmless and will help me sleep better.
Melatonin’s popularity has been exploding. In the past twenty years, its consumption rate has more than quadrupled in the United States (https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/2788539?casa_token=iv4ZXOYIEwAAAAAA:A7zYde2fjOoYBIcxFovzACCQpav24JTqUlKtgJP3hdRSWYqZ3NDqSOcA3NUy1OpDBWrDpx-F), so that even before the Covid-19 pandemic, over 2% of the population self-medicated with it. That may not sound like a lot, but consider that it represents millions of people taking a medication that is not FDA-regulated for sleep problems that it’s not meant to treat.
Here’s the 101 on melatonin: when it’s naturally produced in your body, it’s a hormone that helps your brain and body to operate on schedule. When you have a nice, robust 24-hour circadian rhythm (aka body clock), your brain releases melatonin in the evenings to prepare all systems for sleep in the coming hours; in the wee morning hours, the melatonin in your system gradually decreases, signaling to the body that it will soon be time to wake up again.
When melatonin comes in pill form, it’s meant to treat circadian rhythm problems—such as delayed sleep phase disorder or jetlag—by helping to shift the timing and amount of melatonin in your system. What it doesn’t do is knock you out or cure insomnia. In some cases, like in children with autism, there is evidence that melatonin can be used to reduce sleep problems (https://adc.bmj.com/content/103/12/1155.abstract?casa_token=zB1M5xxFBxcAAAAA:XnbcQI-29OZBD5ZvWolOZq5FEEJMnok0hRU6cYg5SwJERw-E68o-2o69gZXQoJrEFTp0o1_HwQ), but it’s not an insomnia panacea for the general population.
You might be thinking: okay, maybe there’s not enough evidence to show that melatonin helps to improve my sleep, but what’s the harm in trying, just in case it works? It’s over-the-counter, so it’s just like a vitamin gummy, right?
Think again! If you live in the United States, where melatonin is over-the-counter (as in, not FDA-regulated), you might not be taking what you think. A bombshell 2017 study sampled 31 different brands of melatonin from drugstore shelves, and found that the dosage of the pills varied wildly, sometimes almost 5 times what was advertised on the label (https://jcsm.aasm.org/doi/full/10.5664/jcsm.6462). Not only that—sometimes the melatonin pills also contained serotonin (https://jcsm.aasm.org/doi/full/10.5664/jcsm.6462), a controlled substance that can impact your neurochemistry.
Besides, since melatonin is a time-keeping hormone, taking it at the wrong time might backfire and shift your circadian rhythms in the wrong direction. So, even though you don’t need a doctor’s prescription to take melatonin, you should talk to a healthcare provider specializing in sleep before taking it.
Myth #4: You can train yourself to live on less sleep.
Martha Stewart claims to sleep less than four hours per night. Elon Musk supposedly gets no more than six hours. Thomas Edison is reported to have shunned sleep as a vestige of our “cave days,” needing only 3-4 hours himself.
Is it possible that these people, and other successful people who brag about being superhuman, really do sleep so little? Sure. Is it likely? That’s where I’m skeptical. There are people who are genetically hardwired to need much less sleep than the average person, but these are very rare cases. Most adults do need around 7-8 hours of sleep per night, and often more. Younger people in their teens and twenties, especially, usually need closer to 8 or 9 hours.
Sometimes, I meet busy people who say they’ve learned to function just fine with sleeping just 4 or 5 hours. But they might not be realizing how much their lack of sleep is impacting them. One fascinating study from Sweden found that after one night of sleep deprivation, young women performed worse on a memory and attention task (https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/jsr.12651). This was not surprising—many other studies have found similar patterns. What was interesting was that these participants didn’t think they were performing poorly. They were specifically asked how confident they were about their answers to the test questions, and the results showed that they were overconfident, not realizing that lack of sleep had set them back.
Another study asked young adults how much sleep they think they need, then sleep deprived them for one night. The next day, the researchers tested the participants’ reaction speed. They found that people who were generally more resilient performed well, but among the other participants, it was those who claimed to not need much sleep that suffered the worst performance deficit (https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0033294119899896). So the next time someone tells you they only need four hours of sleep to function well, take it with a big grain of salt!
Ultimately, what busting these myths tells us is that sleep is important but also flexible. We should treat our sleep with respect and care, just as we would treat a friend… and we should not expect sleep to be “perfect,” because it’s unfair and unnecessary. Listen to your body for cues that your sleep needs TLC, because your relationship with sleep is lifelong, and taking good care of it is a sure way to better health and happiness.
Hello Sleep #2: Got a busy brain at night? Here’s how to calm it and get back to sleep
At the end of your busy day, all you want to do is put away your worries and your strife. You brush your teeth, put on cozy pajamas, and crawl into your cozy bed, looking forward to blissful sleep. But wait, did you remember to schedule that doctor’s appointment? Also need to get contact lens solution, and grab a gift card for the daycare teacher… is she mad at us? She seemed a bit awkward earlier. Dammit, daycare is so expensive, what are we going to…
And so it begins. Your Busy Brain has turned itself on, ready to run all night on the fuel of all your worries, random musings, to-do lists, philosophical questions, embarrassing memories, and monologues about insomnia. It feels like a troupe of monkeys is jumping around your brain, and the harder you try to push them out, the more excited they get. Before you know it, you’ve watched the hours go by on your clock, desperate and still not sleeping.
This “busy brain” is a frustrating but common experience for people who struggle with insomnia. Even for people who usually sleep well, the occasional night with it can feel like a battle in which you’re losing your mind. But, fortunately, we’re not totally at the mercy of those monkeys. Today, I’ll share four techniques you can practice to quiet your busy brain and let it sink into sleep:
Tip #1: Take care of mental business during the day.
First things first: let’s appreciate that the brain is supposed to be busy. If it weren’t for its ability to constantly perceive, analyze, evaluate, plan, create, anticipate… We humans would not be able to send rockets into space or make fun TikTok videos. So, let’s not get mad at our minds for being in overdrive at night! It’s simply trying to help. Our goal is to let the brain do its thing, but nudge it toward doing it at the right time.
That means we have to take care of mental business during the day—make time to plan, reflect, daydream, and even worry. If these things don’t happen during the day, they will happen at night.
Now, be honest with yourself: How often do you let your mind simply wander, without any screens or other distractions? Write down your concerns or let your creative juices flow without interruptions? If you’re always running from task to task, or bombarded by simulation, then no wonder your brain saves up its busy energy for the one time it can get your attention—at night.
So schedule a daily 30-minute meeting with your brain and allow zero distractions. Have pen and paper on hand if you’d like to work through your to-do list or process worries. Or simply let your mind talk to you as you take a walk or do something rote like folding laundry. When the meeting time is up, thank your mind and remind it that any unfinished business is for tomorrow’s meeting.
Tip #2: Transition from “Doing” to “Being” before bedtime.
We tend to be very goal-oriented during the day. We’re constantly in the process of producing something, whether it’s work or dinner or some semblance of organization in the house. Sometimes, we can even become too focused on productivity and lose sight of simply experiencing the moment. And if we carry this “get things done” energy into bed with us, our minds will keep running.
Instead, if we transition from this “doing” mode to a slower, more mindful “being” mode in the evening, our minds will know that the time for productivity is over and it’s okay to relax now.
To get into “being” mode, write down any unfinished goal-oriented tasks and plan to do them tomorrow. Then, do something that is enjoyable just because it’s enjoyable—cuddle with your partner, play with your dog, listen to music, do a craft, take a bath, stretch, bake… anything is allowed, as long as it’s not secretly a task that only feels good when it’s done (e.g., answering those last work emails). You can start “being” mode whenever you’d like, though I recommend at least 30 minutes before your usual bedtime.
Tip #3: Get out of your head and into your body.
What if we’ve had a particularly exciting or stressful day, and no amount of candle-lit baths could get us fully into a relaxed “being” mode? Now that you’re curled up in bed and ready to sleep, your busy brain seems to catch even more momentum, and before you know it, your thoughts are going 100 miles per hour.
Notice that during this racing mind experience, you are everywhere and every when. You might be imagining the future, reliving the past, wondering about a news event on the other side of the globe, or having an imaginary argument with the partner lying next to you. You are inhabiting so many places and times all at once that it’s impossible to rein your mind in.
But you know what can only exist in one place and at one time? Your body.
So let’s use the body as an anchor to get back to the natural sleepy cues that come at night. My favorite method is the body scan meditation, a simple but powerful redirection for your mind. You simply walk your attention through each part of your body, taking your time to nonjudgmentally notice any sensations in your toes, your feet, your calves and shins, your knees, and so on.
You’re not trying to change or analyze anything. You’re simply noticing your body. If thoughts sneak through—no problem! Just notice the thoughts, gently set them to the side when you’re ready, and get back to the last body part you were noticing. Both your body and mind will slow down and become readier for sleep.
Tip #4: Don’t force it. Just enjoy the extra “me” time.
Sometimes, you’ll have done a great job taking care of mental business during the day, transitioned smoothly from “doing” to “being” in the evening, and capped the day with a lovely body scan once you got into bed… and still have monkeys bouncing around your wide-awake mind. That’s okay! If this is happening often, you may be going to bed too early, before you’ve saved up enough sleep drive or before it’s your circadian system’s preferred time for sleep. Just trust your body and go to bed when you feel sleepy.
If you’re waking up during the night with a suddenly racing mind, that’s okay, too. Don’t worry that waking up at night is bad for your sleep—it’s actually a natural part of sleep architecture. But if you stay in bed and keep trying to shut down the racing mind, you’re not only going to lose the battle, but the war, too, because your brain will learn that the bed is a frustrating place and become even more likely to get revved up here in the future.
So instead of working so hard to get back to sleep, get out of bed (or even just sit up in bed and turn on a bedside lamp) and do something enjoyable to redirect your busy brain. You can read, use your phone, knit, stretch… whatever you’d like! Enjoy this extra “me” time and go back to bed when you’re feeling sleepy. Don’t specifically do boring things to try to trick your brain into falling asleep, because boring feels bad, and you’ll just become frustrated all over again. Remember to trust in sleep. It will take good care of you even if it’s not going perfectly.
Bonus: Listen to a podcast or audiobook to redirect your mind.
One of my personal favorite nighttime activities is listening to an audiobook or podcast. This way, I don’t have to turn on a bunch of lights and disturb my partner, and I get to catch up on something that I never seem to have enough time for during the day. Even on the occasional night when I’ve been awake for hours, it didn’t feel bad because I got to find out who the killer was in a fun plot twist.
It all boils down to this: Don’t fight against your mind. Work with it. Show it some compassion. Instead of doing battle against a mind full of hyperactive monkeys at night, give it more constructive outlets during the day, transition from “doing” to “being” mode before bed, get out of your head and into your body, and last but not least, enjoy the extra “me” time you get at night when your excited mind invites you to play.
Hello Sleep #3: Why perfect sleep hygiene backfires and what to do instead
A while ago, I had an insomnia patient with perfect sleep hygiene. Michelle never had more than one cup of coffee (always before noon), she went to the gym often but never close to bedtime, she had blackout curtains and a high-tech sound machine, she went to bed at 10:00 PM on the dot and meditated with the goal of falling asleep at 10:30 PM… she even put away all screens by 8:00 PM every night. That’s right—even her Kindle!
So you can understand why Michelle was extra frustrated—she was doing everything right, and she tried so hard to just clear her mind and relax. Yet, she still took forever to fall asleep. So when I met her, she was desperate… she asked, “What am I doing wrong?” (with choice placement of a word that rhymes with “duck,” because she was on her third day of having hardly slept at all).
You may be surprised to hear this, but in my insomnia clinic, I see people with impeccable sleep hygiene all the time. If this resonates with you, I have two words for you: Sleep Effort.
Sleep Effort is anything you do to try to chase down sleep, to try to force sleep to happen when it’s not naturally happening on its own. It might be counting sheep while saying to yourself, “Come on, just sleep, dammit!” It might be trying really hard to clear your mind and getting frustrated when stray thoughts keep coming back. It might even be cultivating impeccable sleep hygiene, with the expectation that the harder you work to perfect your sleep environment and habits, the easier it should be to sleep.
But sleep does not reward hard work and meticulous preparation.
Here’s what I mean: Imagine your friend invites you to come to her co-worker’s birthday party. She insists that it’s “chill,” that it’s just a casual get-together with some drinks and snacks. Yet, you see her putting on a Kevlar vest, testing the night-vision goggles she’s going to wear, and packing a can of bear spray and a blueprint of her co-worker’s apartment building into her purse while muttering, “just in case…”
Would you feel relaxed tagging along? Or would you be nervous?
Well, if Sleep were your friend, this is what you’d be doing to her. You’re inviting her to join you for what’s supposed to be a relaxing event, but you’re sending all sorts of signals that there’s something intense or even dangerous in what you’re about to do. Why else would you need such hardcore preparation? Of course it’s going to be hard to fall asleep!
How do we avoid Sleep Effort and send relaxing signals to our body and mind instead? Let’s ditch conventional sleep hygiene rules and replace them with what actually matters.
Tip #1: Get up at the same time every day, but don’t go to bed at the same time.
The first thing to dismantle about Sleep Effort is the expectation that you can or should control when you fall asleep. Sleep is an involuntary behavior. No matter how hard you try, you cannot force yourself to fall asleep if your brain is just not ready, which usually means it’s not the right time in the 24-hour cycle or you haven’t earned enough sleep drive (a.k.a., your brain’s “hunger” for sleep). The most you can do is set the scene, so that when sleep is ready to come to you, you can be ready to welcome it—like being in a relaxing, dark room with cozy blankets, instead of totally unable to answer sleep’s call—like anxiously building up expectations for what’s going to happen with sleep tonight.
What does this mean practically speaking? It means that when you hear the sleep hygiene “rule” of going to bed and getting up at the same time every day, you should scratch the first half. Just get up at the same time (or around the same time, within about an hour’s wiggle room), and forget about going to bed at any specific time. Simply go to bed when you feel sleepy. At first, you might feel like you’re not getting sleepy until super late, but if you stick with getting up at the same time, your body will begin to make you sleepy at just the right time to give you the sleep you need.
Tip #2: Feel free to use screens in the evening… as long as you get lots of light during the day.
One of the least popular sleep hygiene rules out there is the one banning screen use in the evening. Every once in a blue moon, one of my patients loves this idea, but usually, people try screen celibacy for a couple of days then go back to their evening social media and Netflix, feeling guilty that all this light in their eyes must be screwing up their sleep.
There is some basis in this sleep hygiene advice. Your circadian clock, a crucial part of good sleep, relies on the light coming into your eyes to stay tuned to the 24-hour world. It evolved in a world where there’s not much light after sunset—just the moon, stars, and campfires, so our modern evening lights can confuse the circadian system. That’s why too much screen use in the evening can suppress melatonin, the hormone that usually ramps up at night to give us good sleep.
But don’t worry, our circadian clocks are very smart. It can adapt to our modern life, as long as we give it clear signals. That is, as long as we still get lots of bright light exposure during the day, there will still be a big contrast between days and nights, even if we use screens in the evening. So get outside for at least 30 minutes per day or use a broad spectrum light box for 20 minutes in the morning. When you do use screens in the evening, dim them and turn on Night Shift mode (or the equivalent of this on your device) to decrease the amount of stimulating blue light. This will erase any confusion for your circadian clock and help you to get better quality sleep.
Tip #3: Meditate if you’d like to, but don’t use it as a tool for falling asleep.
One of the biggest mistakes my insomnia patients make is meditating too hard. I don’t mean that meditation itself is bad for sleep. On the contrary, meditation can be very helpful for calming the body and mind. Research on mindfulness meditation and relaxation exercises, for example, has shown that daily practice can improve sleep quantity and quality.
But when we meditate with the specific goal of falling asleep, or in other words, we use meditation as a hammer to try to knock ourselves out…it often ends up backfiring. That’s because our intentions matter. Remember how we talked about sleep being an involuntary phenomenon? When the intention is to force this involuntary thing to happen, we are creating performance anxiety, which pushes sleep further away. It’s just like for sexual intimacy—if there’s a lot of pressure to perform, or expectation for our bodies to respond in a certain way on command, then we’re less likely to naturally respond in the desired way.
This is why I recommend not having meditation be the last thing you do before falling asleep. Do it before your bedtime routine, or as the first part of it. If you wake up during the night and want to meditate, ask yourself if you secretly hope that it will put you back to sleep. Either way, you can still meditate, but plan to listen to a podcast or read a book afterwards and allow sleep to come to you when it’s ready.
Tip #4: Exercise any time of day you’d like, but try to do at least part of it mindfully.
You’ve probably heard that you should avoid exercising at night so you don’t get too stimulated for sleep. But when researchers looked at all the available data, it turns out that this is a myth. Evening exercise is not harmful for sleep. In fact, it’s beneficial for sleep, including slightly increasing deep sleep percentage. So go ahead and hit the gym, go for a jog, or do yoga in the evening.
One thing I would recommend, though, is doing at least part of your workout mindfully. This means being fully in the here and now, without judgment. Practicing mindfulness is beneficial for every aspect of health and well-being, but the biggest barrier is that most people misunderstand what it means. When I said, “mindfulness,” you may have pictured someone sitting quietly in a bamboo forest with their eyes closed. But this is only one of many ways to be mindful! A true mindfulness practice is about bringing this philosophy of nonjudgmental present focus with you to any time and situation—including your workout.
Exercising mindfully means paying full attention to your body’s sensations, even if there’s a mixed bag of pleasant and unpleasant feelings. It means not being distracted by a TV, phone, music, or conversation. You don’t have to do it 100% of the time, but trying to mindfully run that last half mile or mindfully do those last few sets of weights can help you get out of your head and into your body, a skill that will level up your workout and help you to sleep better overall.
Remember Michelle, the insomnia patient I had with perfect sleep hygiene? I gave her permission to loosen up and have some fun in the evenings. She started back up with running club on Wednesday evenings, caught up watching White Lotus, and even went out with friends and had late cocktails once in a while. Suddenly, she felt much freer and less anxious, and even though she still occasionally took a while to fall asleep, she knew it was temporary and no longer felt like sleep was such a chore. She was friends with sleep again!
And if you’re worried about your sleep, especially if you struggle with falling or staying asleep, this is a first step you can take too. Let go of your preconceived notions about how sleep should be, and pay attention to what your body is telling you instead. Remember that sleep is a friend, not an engineering problem. And we have to start with listening in order to rediscover this beautiful relationship. With that, I wish you sweet dreams!
Thanks for checking out this series on sleep. Find Dr. Jade Wu’s new book, Hello Sleep: the Science and Art of Overcoming Insomnia Without Medications, on Bookshop.org, Amazon, or on the shelves at your local bookstore.
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.