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Rest Easy: Sleep Myths vs. Truths

If you're feeling crabby due to a lack of sleep, you're not alone. A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey shows that a third of American adults snooze less than seven hours a night. Little things you do to catch more zzz's may actually have the opposite effect, says James Wyatt, Ph.D., director of the Sleep Disorders Service and Research Center at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. He separates REM fact from fiction.
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1. Sleeping an extra hour on the weekends is good for you: True.
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Darrell Eager

Sometimes it's impossible to hit the seven- to eight-hour recommendation every night of the week. "By all means, go to bed early and wake up late if you can," says Wyatt. Rising later on weekends helps relieve the fatigue and irritability brought on by a shut-eye shortage.

2. The snooze button eases you out of dreamland: False.

You get lighter, poorer-quality sleep when you have to reach over to hit your clock every nine minutes. Instead, leave your bed on the first buzz. This may take some practice—over time, your brain ceases to register the sound as a signal to wake up. Program the clock on your bedside table to the time you need to rise, and set a second alarm on the other side of your room. That way, if you doze off after the sound of your first alarm, you'll have to leave your bed for the second one.

3. Exercising after dinner will keep you up at night: False.

Working out two to four hours before bed can help you settle into slumber. "The brain likes to drift off as the body temperature is dropping," says Wyatt. "Exercising a few hours before bed heats you up and cools you off faster than normal, which aids sleep." Just be sure to finish within two hours of hitting the hay; otherwise, you'll toss and turn while your brain waits for your body to chill out.

4. Medication is the best way to treat long-term insomnia: False.

Research shows that therapy is significantly more effective than drugs. "In therapy, a sleep specialist helps the patient develop strategies that get to the root of the problem," says Wyatt. Many people who have insomnia also suffer from depression and anxiety, and targeting all conditions at once helps speed recovery. Most patients see improvement in six to eight weekly sessions.

5. A melatonin supplement helps put you out: False.

"Your brain already releases all the melatonin you need naturally," says Wyatt. "More isn't better." These supplements can be effective, however, when you need to sleep during the day—say, if you're jet-lagged or have to prepare for an overnight shift at your job.

Your Best Bed

Two people sleeping on a full-size mattress get 27 inches of personal space apiece—the width of a baby's crib. The Better Sleep Council recommends a queen—or king—size bed for couples. For more tips, go to familycircle.com/mattresstips.

Originally published in the October 1, 2011, issue of Family Circle magazine.

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