I Can't Sleep: 5 Myths About Insomnia, Busted

At night, you can’t sleep. In the morning, you can’t wake up. Sound familiar? Get back on track with 5 myths (and facts) about sleep and insomnia from Savvy Psychologist.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD,
Episode #056

It’s strange to say, but sleep is trendy these days. In any culture, whatever is scarce or hard to achieve is valued. For example, thinness in a land of plenty, girth in a time of deprivation.  

So in a culture where folks get rewarded for answering work emails at 3am, not to mention the sizeable number of folks who work two jobs and go to school while raising kids, healthy sleep has become a cross between rebellion and a luxury status symbol.  

See also; How Sleep Makes You Fit


But when I say "healthy sleep," what exactly do I mean?  This week, we’ll do some myth busting and help you make the most of those precious hours in bed. To that end, here are 5 myths and facts about healthy sleep:

Myth #1: I Need 8 Hours of Sleep Each Night

Rather than a one-size-fits all approach of 8 hours, the amount of sleep an individual needs falls within a range. For you and your life, it may be anywhere between 5 and 10 hours. Only you can discover for yourself your magic number.  

Some clues? Do you fall asleep reading or watching TV? Does running out of coffee qualify as an emergency? Do you find you have to sleep in or take naps on weekends to catch up? If so, your ideal number of sleep hours is probably higher than you’ve been getting.  

Myth #2: Getting up at Night for 15 Minutes Means I Lose 15 Minutes of Sleep

Unfortunately, when life wakes you in the middle of the night, you lose way more than just those minutes out of bed. Waking to change your pajamas after a hot flash, answer the phone if you’re on call, or of course, comfort a crying baby, is harder on us than we ever thought.  

I’m surprised it took until 2014 to officially research this, but a first-of-its kind study in the journal Sleep Medicine looked at the effects of sleep interruption over two nights. The first night, all the study participants slept for 8 hours. Researchers then measured their mood and ability to pay attention. Good so far.  

A few nights later, the participants were split into two groups: half slept for only 4 hours, while the other half slept for 8 hours but got woken up 4 times for 10-15 minutes at a stretch. So technically, they spent at least 7 hours asleep - 3 hours longer than the 4-hour group - just interspersed with awakenings. Then everyone’s mood and attention was measured again.

Anyone who’s ever had a newborn or been on call for work can predict what happens next: the mood and attention of folks with interrupted sleep were just as bad as those who slept for only 4 hours. Both groups felt depressed, irritable, and had a hard time getting going. Plus, performance on the attention task got worse the longer they kept at it. Indeed, whoever coined the term “sleep like a baby” clearly never had one.

Myth #3: I Should Go to Bed and Wake up at the Same Time Every Day

Well, this is half a myth. The true half is that you should wake up at the same time every day, give or take one hour. Yes, even on weekends. What happens if you wake up later (sound familiar, Saturday morning)? Basically, you’ve incurred jet lag without getting to go anywhere. We’ll get into this more in Myth #4 in just a second.

As for going to bed at the same time, you can throw a set bedtime out the window. Instead, go to bed when you’re sleepy. When you start to droop, your eyes get heavy, or you can’t focus anymore, let yourself go to bed, even if it’s before “bedtime.”

So as promised...

Myth #4: My Brain Holds My Internal Clock

Yes, the master clock, technically called the "suprachiasmatic nucleus," or SCN, is in your brain. But almost all your organs, plus your fat and skeletal muscle, follow some sort of daily rhythm as well. Your gut, liver, and kidneys in particular have strong rhythms.

That’s why you feel so lousy when you have jet lag, and that’s why you often awake groggy or feeling thrown off when you sleep in on the weekend - your whole body is affected.

And over the long term, throwing off your body clocks through overnight shift work, frequent jet lag, or just wacky sleep habits can put you at risk for some serious diseases, including breast cancer and colon cancer.

Circadian disruption is also thought to be a final push that sends some of those merely at risk over the edge. For example, only 30% of alcoholics develop liver disease. Why? Well, a 2013 study found that circadian disorganization, common in shift workers, increases “permeability of the intestinal epithelial barrier,” or in other words, a leaky gut.

In the context of what the researchers called “injurious agents,” (i.e., booze), a leaky gut puts folks at higher risk for liver inflammation and disease. They concluded that while there are many factors that determine whether someone with alcohol addiction develops liver disease, circadian disruption may be the swizzle stick that breaks the camel’s back.

Myth #5: If I Can’t Sleep, I Should Just Wait it Out...

On the contrary, if you know you’ll be staring at the ceiling for a while, get up.  Yes, your bed is cozy and warm, but here’s why you should get out of it. Much like you probably associate biting into a lemon with puckered lips and Pavlov’s dogs associated the bell with food, thereby salivating, you want to associate your bed with one thing: sleep (well, OK, two things. I’ll let you guess the other one).

When you lie in bed for more than 15-20 minutes without sleeping, you start to associate your bed with wakefulness. And when you watch TV or fool around on Pinterest either before bed or when you can’t sleep, those too become associations with bed.  

With time, bed could mean sleep, or it could also mean CSI, preschool science project pinboards, or planning your day in your head. Yes, even thinking and worrying qualify as activities you don’t want to do in bed.  

So what to do? You can still do all these things, just don’t do them in bed. Get them done before you head to bed, and if you can’t sleep after 15-20 minutes, get up and do something non-stimulating like reading on the couch or at the kitchen table until you feel sleepy. Then try again. If you still can’t sleep, rinse and repeat: get up again to avoid associating the bed with anything but sleep and sex.  

This is what behavioral psychologists call stimulus control and it’s the most effective way to combat chronic insomnia. It may take a week or two, but it’s been shown to break the bad habits that maintain insomnia.

For more immediate, in-the-moment tips for how to salvage a sleepless night, check out How to Sleep Now: Quick Fixes for Insomnia. You’ll get so good at sleeping, you’ll do it with your eyes closed!

What steps do you take to combat insomnia? What works for you? Share you experiences with us on the Savvy psychologist Facebook page. 

And don't forget to sign up for the upcoming Savvy Psychologist newsletter, chock full of tips to improve your mental health.


Davis, S. & Mirick, D.K. (2006).  Circadian disruption, shift work and the risk of cancer: a summary of evidence and studies in Seattle.  Cancer Causes and Control, 17, 539-545. 

Kahn, M., Fridenson, S., Lerer, R., Bar-Haim, Y., & Sadeh, A.  (2014).  Effects of one night of induced night-wakings versus sleep restriction on sustained attention and mood: A pilot study.  Sleep Medicine, 15, 825-832.

Summa, K.C., Voigt, R.M., Forsyth, C.B., Shaikh, M., Cavanaugh, K., Tang, Y. et al. (2013).  Disruption of the circadian clock in mice increases intestinal permeability and promotes alcohol-induced hepatic pathology and inflammation.  PLoS One, 8: e67102..

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