Sleep is a foundational block of military wellness, but only 30% of Service Members get enough sleep—with most sleeping less than 6 hours per night. Many factors contribute to this alarming number, including a lack of evidence-based information about sleep. What you believe to be true about sleep will drive your behaviors and sleep habits. For example, if you think that you can train your brain and body to perform well with less sleep, you'll put effort into that. On the flip side, if you’re aware that sleep is essential to optimal health and performance, and you can't offset the consequences of lack of sleep, you'll make sleep a priority.
Busting common myths about sleep can help Service Members change their behavior to improve sleep readiness. It's also helpful to know what's part of normal sleep, so you know when it's time to seek professional help. Here are 10 common myths and facts about sleep.
Myth: Many Service Members need no more than 6 hours of sleep for optimal military wellness and performance.
Just like everyone else, Service Members need 7–9 hours of sleep, and sleeping less than that isn’t a sign of mental and physical toughness. While rare genetic mutations allow some people to sustain health and performance with less than 7 hours of sleep every night, those mutations only affect 1 in 4 million people worldwide.
Myth: You can train your brain and body to sustain performance with less sleep.
Fact: Those who get less than 7 hours per night report increased sleepiness and reduced attention for the first few days of sleep deprivation. Over time, changes in mental and physical capacity level off, and lower performance starts to feel normal. The truth is that sleep-deprived people get used to underperforming—not that they can train to sustain performance with less sleep.
Myth: It’s best to stay in bed with your eyes closed if you’re having a hard time falling asleep.
Fact: Your brain can learn to associate an environment with a specific behavior, and being in that particular environment makes it easier to perform the behavior associated with it. The goal is to learn and reinforce the association between lying in bed and sleeping, not staying awake. In general, if you can't sleep within 20 minutes of going to bed, then get up, do something relaxing, and only go back to bed when you feel tired.
Myth: A good sleeper can fall asleep anytime, anywhere.
Fact: Getting healthy, adequate sleep during the night ensures you have sustained energy and alertness levels during the day. So, being able to quickly fall asleep any time during the day—even under suboptimal conditions such as lighted, noisy, or hot environments—can be a sign of poor sleep. Be aware that some people can have low-quality, non-restorative sleep despite sleeping for 7–9 hours.
Myth: Caffeine can offset all the consequences of sleep deprivation.
Fact: When your duties require that you go more than 24 hours without sleep, 200 mg of caffeine can help you sustain alertness and performance. However, lack of sleep impairs your performance across all TFF domains in ways that caffeine can't help. For example, caffeine won't reverse the impact of sleep deprivation on blood sugar and hunger signals.
Myth: Evening exercise is always disruptive to sleep.
Fact: Exercise at any time of the day makes it easier to fall asleep and improves sleep quality. However, vigorous physical activity causes your heart rate and body temperature to temporarily raise. If you exercise too close to bedtime (within 60 minutes), this rise in temperature might make it harder for you to relax and sleep. Learn and observe how long your body takes to settle down after a workout session and use that as a limit to perform vigorous exercise in the evening.
Myth: A drink or two before bed helps you get restorative sleep.
Fact: Alcohol causes you to become unconscious and fall asleep quicker. However, even a small quantity of alcohol consumed close to bedtime reduces sleep quality. Alcohol makes it harder to spend enough time in the restorative stages of sleep as well. This is also true for some over-the-counter medications. The active drugs in these pills (diphenhydramine and doxylamine) can help you fall asleep easier, but they might reduce sleep quality and cause grogginess the next morning.
Myth: A warm bedroom is the best environment for sleep.
Fact: Warm temperatures can help your body relax, but they don't support a good night's sleep. Your internal clock triggers a drop in body temperature around bedtime, helping you fall asleep. Being in a warm bedroom or having too many layers of blankets can disrupt this natural drop in your body temperature and make it harder to fall and stay asleep.
Myth: Moving or waking up in the middle of the night is always an indication of being a bad sleeper.
Fact: It's normal to occasionally move during sleep. However, if the movement lasts for a long time or disrupts your or your bed partner's sleep, it becomes a cause for concern. It's also normal to have short periods of wakefulness during the night, but you usually don't remember them. Getting up to use the bathroom and quickly going back to sleep is also part of normal sleep.
Myth: Hitting snooze provides extra restful sleep.
Fact: Many people hit the snooze button to get an additional 10–20 minutes of sleep. However, this fragmented sleep doesn't contribute to the restorative properties of sleep and brings no benefit. It's a better practice to set the alarm at the latest time possible to get 7–9 hours of sleep and still be on time for your morning commitments. Then you can wake up the first time the alarm goes off and start your day.
Sleep is essential to performance in all Total Force Fitness domains. If you want to develop habits that help you fall asleep faster and sustain quality sleep through the night, check out HPRC's sleep hygiene self-check. This tool contains evidence-based tips to help you improve your sleep readiness to support health and military performance.