June 27, 2013 at 6:43 PM ET
Yawn. Mondays, amirite?
You're likely not the only half-asleep office drone today — nearly 70 million Americans suffer from sleeping problems that keep them up at night, leaving them exhausted during the day.
But much of what we think we know about sleep isn't accurate, says Dr. Holly Phillips, medical contributor for Prevention magazine. Here, we cover six sleeping myths that might actually be making us more tired.
Myth 1: Napping only makes us more tired.
Fact: Some people swear that quick naps make them sleepier, but a 10- to 20-minute snooze should perk most of us up — that's all you need to get the benefits of napping, such as alertness, improved performance and better mood. Here's why: During sleep, your brain produces different kinds of waves, which correspond to how deeply you sleep. After about 20 minutes, the sleeping brain may move into what's called slow-wave sleep, which is the deepest phase of sleep. If you nap too long, you may feel groggy and disoriented upon awakening instead of refreshed because long naps are more likely to contain deep slow-wave sleep.
When you nap also matters. A power nap should be early in the day so it doesn't interfere with your ability to fall asleep at bedtime. Most people's inner body clocks trigger drowsiness somewhere between 1 and 4 p.m.
Energy fix: To make naps a daily ritual, doze off faster by using something you associate with sleep (a favorite pillow or lavender eye mask). Also, nap in a comfortable chair or couch instead of your bed to avoid the temptation to doze for too long, so you don't wake up with a sleep hangover.
Myth 2: Exercising too close to bedtime keeps you up.
Fact: That's not true for everyone. In fact, research shows that even vigorous exercise right before bedtime doesn't cause trouble sleeping for many people (and in some cases it may help).
This is good news if your busy schedule gives you a short window of time after work to squeeze in some activity. Even people who have trouble sleeping can probably exercise about an hour before bed without problems. But we don't have hard data, so people really have to do their own testing.
Energy fix: Experiment. If you exercise at night and suspect that your workout may be keeping you up, reschedule it for earlier in the day for several days to see whether you sleep better. Keeping a sleep diary for those days, noting when you exercise and how well you sleep-can help. If you find you do sleep better when you exercise earlier, make the switch permanent.
Myth 3: Skipping a little sleep isn't that horrible.
Fact: Missing even 90 minutes of sleep for just one night can reduce your daytime alertness by as much as 32 percent. That's enough to impair your memory, your thinking ability, and your safety on the job and on the road. One Australian study found that volunteers who stayed awake just 6 hours past their normal bedtime for a single day performed as poorly on tests gauging attentiveness and reaction time as those who were legally drunk. The National Sleep Foundation's 2009 poll showed that as many as 1.9 million drivers have had a car crash or a near miss due to drowsiness in the past year.
Energy fix: If you miss several hours of sleep one night, consider calling in sick the next day or ask if you can work from home. (That way, you won't have to drive.) If you find yourself nodding off at your desk, take a brisk walk up and down the stairs or hall. Exercise helps you snap to, in part because the accompanying rise in body temperature appears to boost alertness for a time. If possible, set aside part of your lunch hour for a nap. Remember to set an alarm, or ask a buddy to wake you.
Myth 4: You have to be in bad shape to take sleeping pills.
Fact: Actually, sleeping pills are most helpful if you take them before insomnia becomes chronic, as they can help correct your off-kilter sleep homeostat.
Today's popular pills like Ambien and Sonata, unlike older versions, help you drift off to sleep within minutes and stay asleep, thus breaking the cycle of sleeplessness and anxiety that can turn a few nights of insomnia into chronic sleeplessness. They also wear off faster than older meds, so you're not semi-comatose in the morning. Like all medicines, sleeping pills can cause side effects (dizziness, headache, agitation), and they're not meant for long-term use.
Energy fix: Ask your doctor about the pros and cons of sleeping meds for you. If you'd prefer a drug-free alternative, consider cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT); long-term, it can be more effective than pills at combating insomnia. CBT trains insomniacs to avoid bad habits and counterproductive worries about lost sleep. Usually the therapy runs from four to eight sessions, but some patients find relief with as few as two. The downside of CBT: It can cost hundreds per session and, unlike pills, may not be covered by insurance.
Myth 5: It doesn't matter when you go to sleep.
Fact: Night owls are nearly 3 times more likely to experience symptoms of depression than early birds, one study found — even when they got the same total amount of sleep.
Experts aren't sure exactly why, but there may be an optimal time within the 24-hour clock to fall asleep and wake up. This and other research shows that going to bed late can be bad for your mood and your overall health.
Energy fix: If you want to shift back your bedtime, start gradually: Head to bed 15 to 30 minutes earlier every few days, and make sure the lights in your home are dim for about 2 hours before that time, says Shives. Then set your alarm to wake up 7 to 8 hours later.