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Medical Misconceptions: Solving The Enigma Of Sleep

In this Special Feature, we challenge some of the most widespread beliefs about sleep, including those about the effects of alcohol, the ability to recall one's dreams, and the consumption of cheese in the wee hours of the morning.

Many different kinds of animals have some form of sleep need, and for evolution to have maintained a habit across many different species, it must be of some significance.

After all, being asleep for a prolonged period of time does not seem to be the most prudent behaviour for an animal living in the wild. So whatever goes on during sleep is crucial.

Sleep is essential to maintaining both one's physical and mental health. The short- and long-term impacts of not getting enough sleep have been linked to a wide variety of adverse health outcomes, such as diabetes, depression, stroke, and others.

On the other hand, given that sleep is inextricably linked to the ethereal in the form of dreams, altered moods, and feelings, it should come as no surprise that it is the subject of a multitude of myths.

We dispel some of the most widespread misconceptions about the all-pervasive nap in this Special Feature that we've put together for you.

girl sleeping in the leaves

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To our great relief, when we sleep, our brains do not stop doing the important work they conduct throughout the day. Because of essential processes like respiration, our brains can never be in a completely resting state. In point of fact, the brain wave activity during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is when most dreams occur, is quite similar to that of alertness.

It is interesting that despite the tremendous degree of activity that occurs during REM sleep, it is the most difficult time to wake a sleeper up. Because of this, the stage of sleep that follows deep sleep is sometimes referred to as paradoxical sleep.

While we are sleeping, our white and grey matter are busy processing a lot of information. After we have finally fallen asleep, our brains go through a sequence of three phases of non-REM sleep, followed by one session of REM sleep. The brain exhibits a distinct pattern of brain waves and a distinct level of neuronal activity across each of the four phases.

During the course of a normal night's sleep, this pattern of four phases will often occur five or six times.

During non-REM sleep, some parts of the brain become inactive, while other parts of the brain become very active. For example, the amygdala, which is most well-known for its function in the regulation of emotions, is active while a person is sleeping.

The thalamus is a particularly intriguing example. A relay station for our senses, this region of the brain is located here. The thalamus is the first part of the brain to receive information about what we see, hear, and feel. Following then, sensory inputs are carried to the cerebral cortex, which is responsible for making meaning of the information received.

During stages of sleep that do not include REM, the thalamus is generally calm. The thalamus, on the other hand, becomes active during REM sleep, at which point it relays to the cerebral cortex the images and sounds that we experience in our dreams.

The vast majority of us dream each night, yet most of the time we can't recall our dreams. The REM stage of sleep is the most common time for dreaming, yet once awake, dreams are quickly forgotten.

Only when a person awakens during or immediately after REM sleep can the memory of a dream remain intact. This is because REM sleep is the deepest stage of sleep.

There is some evidence that some neurons that are engaged during REM sleep may actively repress dream memories.

These neurons are responsible for the production of melanin-concentrating hormone (MCH), which has a role in the regulation of sleep. Additionally, the hippocampus, an essential part of the brain for memory storage, is inhibited by MCH.

Because it is believed that dreaming takes place most frequently during REM sleep, which is the stage of sleep during which MCH cells become active, it is possible that activation of these cells prevents the content of a dream from being stored in the hippocampus; as a result, the dream is quickly forgotten.

One piece of research takes a somewhat different tack in its investigation of this topic. The researchers sought participants who were able to recall the majority of their dreams after awakening. They discovered that these individuals had more frequent awakenings throughout the night compared to those who had a less frequent recollection of their dreams.

This shows that persons who often remember their dreams may sleep less soundly than others.

To summarise, being able to recall a dream is not always indicative of quality sleep. It's only a coincidence that you woke up at exactly the correct moment to remember it.

The widespread belief is that if you rouse someone who is sleepwalking, they may have a heart attack or possibly pass away. This is not the case at all.

On the other hand, waking a sleepwalker might cause them to experience perplexity and even terror in certain cases. People need to use caution if they wake sleepwalkers since some of them can engage in hostile behaviour.

Sleepwalkers may put themselves in danger by moving about the home without opening their eyes, which can lead to injuries. Because of this, the most effective line of action is to attempt to persuade them to return to the sanctuary of their bed.

On the website of the National Health Service (NHS) in the United Kingdom, it is recommended that "the best thing to do if you notice someone sleepwalking is to ensure that they are safe."

The NHS website also states that after the sleepwalker has returned to sleep and the episode has ended, it is a good idea to gently wake them up before allowing them to go back to sleep. This is because it is best to prevent the sleepwalker from falling asleep again during the episode. Because of this, it is possible to "avoid another episode from happening in the same deep-sleep cycle."

They also provide some words of warning, saying things like, "Do not yell or startle the individual, and do not physically detain them unless they are in danger, since they may strike out."

The length of time it takes to fall asleep is shortened when alcohol is consumed. A person who has consumed alcohol may also be more difficult to awaken than usual. Because of this, many individuals incorrectly believe that it has a positive effect on their overall quality of sleep. This is not the situation at all. When compared to sleep that is not disrupted by alcohol, the quality of sleep that one experiences when under the influence of alcohol is inferior.

In order for us to feel refreshed when we awake, our brain has to go through the finely coordinated set of stages and cycles that were discussed previously. The use of alcohol throws off this pattern of repeated actions.

For instance, the authors of a review on the subject indicate that consuming alcohol results in a "significant decrease in the amount of REM sleep experienced during the first phase of sleep." In the majority of trials, both moderate and high dosages resulted in a reduction in the proportion of total nighttime REM sleep.

According to a different piece of research that takes a broader look at the connection between drugs and sleep, "self-reported sleep disorders are relatively widespread among alcohol users," with rates of clinical insomnia ranging between around 35 and 70 per cent.

To recap, drinking alcohol may help you fall asleep faster, but the quality of sleep that it induces will not be as restorative.

This is a common misconception that has been around for a long time, especially in the Western world. Although it is common knowledge, one need merely consume cheese before going to bed to discover that this is not always the case for all people.

In contrast, consuming a heavy meal just before going to bed, regardless of whether or not the meal contains cheese, may lead to indigestion and heartburn, both of which can disrupt sleep.

If you have a restless stomach that keeps you awake at night and causes you to wake up more often, it will be easier for you to recall any nightmares that you may have had. If you wake up in the middle of a dream, there is a good chance that you will not remember it. This is because, as was discussed previously, individuals forget their dreams nearly as rapidly as they produce them.

In addition, having a painful tummy may enhance the likelihood that you will have an unpleasant dream that night.

The kind of meal that is eaten in the time leading up to supper may also have an effect. The following is an explanation provided by Dr William Kormos, Editor in Chief of Harvard Men's Health Watch:

"Eating a heavy meal, particularly a meal rich in carbohydrates, might produce night sweats because the body creates heat as it metabolises the food. "The body generates heat as it metabolises the food."

Again, there is a good chance that this will cause sleep disruption, will make you more awake, and will, as a result, make it more likely that you will recall your dreams.

It is unknown why or how the association between cheese and nightmares came to be, although the fact that cheese boards are often served towards the conclusion of a substantial meal may provide some explanation. Despite the fact that there are others who think the cheese myth may have its roots in ancient folklore.

The idea that specific foods, such as milk, cheese, and turkey, could assist promote sleep is connected to another urban legend. Tryptophan is one of the amino acids that may be found in certain foods, which is why this is the case.

It is impossible for the body to produce serotonin without tryptophan, and serotonin is required for the production of melatonin, a hormone that is involved in the regulation of sleep.

Therefore, according to this line of thinking, meals that are high in tryptophan could make it easier to fall asleep. The belief that eating Thanksgiving turkey, which contains a sufficient amount of tryptophan, can cause someone to feel drowsy after lunch is the most widespread of these urban legends.

However, research into the effects of tryptophan consumption on sleep has not identified a significant correlation between the two. In addition, the amounts of this acid that are present in a single serving of cheese or turkey are not sufficient to cause any noticeable change.

Sleep still contains many secrets. Only through the continued pursuit of scientific knowledge and inquiry can we finally find more answers. On the other hand, as this article demonstrates, there are statistics that may debunk a good deal of the most ingrained beliefs.

A good piece of advice, for the time being, is to steer clear of eating late at night, cut down on alcohol consumption, and use caution around sleepwalkers.

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