Busting myths on sleep

Sleep experts separate fact from fiction...
20 June 2019

Interview with 

Anna Weighall, Sheffield University; Malcolm von Schantz, Surrey University; Paul Blenkiron, NHS psychiatrist


Long exposure image of a question mark in neon lights


Do you know your sleep science from sleep pseudoscience? Katie Haylor asks chronobiologist Malcolm von Schantz from the University of Surrey, cognitive psychologist Anna Weighall from the University of Sheffield, and NHS psychiatrist Paul Blenkiron to go sleep myth-busting. But first up, Katie asked the Naked Scientists office how well they sleep...

Adam - If I could, I would be nocturnal. I'd sleep from about 4 am to 12 pm.

Katie - Ankita, how happy are you with your sleep?

Ankita - I'd like to be able to sleep more. I'm definitely more of an owl, I work really well in the evening so getting up in the morning's always a challenge.

Katie - Matthew, how well do you sleep?

Matthew - On average with exams, 4-5 hours a night. It's a little rough.

Izzie - I'm probably a lark. If I could shift my hours even earlier, I probably would do that.

Adam - I cannot even fathom what living like that would be like! It baffles me.

Katie - Phil, how do you sleep?

Phil - One hundred percent owl. Harry Potter level.

Katie - Basically, all of the Naked Scientists are owls, apart from Izzie.

Phil - Apart from Izzie lark.

Katie - Apart from Izzie (C)lark.


Now in planning this episode we couldn't resist but ask the experts for their favourite sleep pseudoscience that they would like to myth bust, and Katie got her fellow Naked Scientists' reactions to each of them. First up, cognitive psychologist Anna Weighall...

Anna - I really hate when people have forgotten something and they go “oh, I can't remember that detail because I’ve slept since then”, because we know that having slept should improve your memory of something at least if it's important.

Katie - Izzie, have you heard that before?

Izzie - No, but I also forget things quite regularly and then throughout the day I'll be like “oh God, I forgot to do something!”. Sleep has happened in the in-between but perhaps that's just that I should be more organised with my life rather than blaming it on sleep.

Katie - No comment, Izzie! Next up is body clock scientist Malcolm's myth...

Malcolm - There seems to be an impression that you cannot make up for lost sleep, and that is manifestly not true. We talk about sleep debt which almost is exactly what it is, so if you're sleep deprived then, if given the opportunity, your body will make up for that by sleeping longer for the next night or two nights. That is something that we should whenever possible just go with.

Katie - Adam, you looked really surprised!

Adam - I was convinced that sleep debt was a thing you couldn't make up, that if you lost sleep... tough. And I'm really glad that it isn't true.

Katie - You're not allowed to sleep at work though.

Adam - You have to catch me first.

Katie - No sleeping on the job Adam! And finally, here's a few words from psychiatrist Paul...

Paul - I know a lot of people come to see me or go to their GP, want a sleeping tablet to sort the problem out. I have to say that most of the time this is not going to be a good idea. The medications that we prescribe for sleep are meant to be taken for a maximum of two, maybe four weeks and then stopped.

So, I would suggest to people if there sleep problem has been going for a long time and there's not a specific reason for not sleeping, don't go for medication, go for lifestyle adjustment and CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy). Problems with the medication of course, although they do work; drugs like Zopiclone do work, it is a short-term fix, tends to cause dependence, tolerance. People tend to need more of the same drug for the same effect, and in the elderly can lead to problems such as confusion, more falls.

So I would say if you're going on holiday and you have terrible jetlag or a shift problem or you've had some terrible trauma in your life, by all means consider medication for the short term but please, in the long term don't look to it as a solution. Stay off tablets where you can.

Katie - Weirdly, I fall asleep on public transport and also if I'm a passenger in the car. Does anyone else do that?

Izzie - You can put me as a passenger in a car for a 20 minute journey and I will start to nod off. It's quite embarrassing.

Katie - I think we’re just a bit weird Izzie.

Adam - I have a partner with it.

Katie -  Adam, your wife does it as well?

Adam - Yeah.

Phil - I wish I could sleep in a moving vehicle. I've never been able to. It's the skill I'd most like to have!


Music from Mativve via freesound.org 


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