Busting 10 Sleep Myths With Netflix's Headspace Guide to Sleep

Netflix / Netflix

Netflix’s new series Headspace Guide to Sleep, a collaboration with the popular meditation app, explores different facets of sleep and offers exercises to help viewers create a mind-body connection and get a better night’s rest.

“One of the biggest challenges for sleep, whether it's falling asleep or waking up in the night, is stress,” Eve Lewis Prieto, Headspace's director of meditation and the series' narrator, tells Mental Floss. “When we’re experiencing stress, our body’s fight or flight response is triggered. We release hormones such as cortisone and adrenaline, which are basically designed to keep you awake [and] in a high state of vigilance.”

Because the deep breathing done during meditation generates a feeling of serenity and signals to the brain that it’s time to calm down, taking just five minutes to decompress can benefit sleep.

Poor sleep puts people at increased risk for obesity, high blood pressure, and heart disease, while relying on sleep aids, especially prescription sleep aids, can cause dependence and other long-term health effects. So Headspace wants to offer an alternative. “We're not saying that only meditation will work, but it could be used as an additional support that either helps you get away from sleeping pills, or in addition to what you're already doing to address sleeping issues,” Lewis Prieto says.

She helped to clear up some common misconceptions about sleep and meditation and shared 10 tips on how to get the best sleep possible.

1. You don’t need to aim for exactly eight hours of sleep.

Many of us have been taught to believe that adults need eight hours of sleep each night. But the series calls that number “more of an average than an actual goal,” adding that “the sweet spot does lay somewhere between seven and nine hours for adults.” That range varies from person to person, though, and can change over the course of a lifetime. And getting too much sleep—more than nine hours—has been associated with an increased risk for diabetes, heart disease, and other health issues. Listen to your body in order to understand how much sleep it needs.

“Most of us spend a lot of our time just in 'doing' mode, so actually finding a way to tune into what's happening in the body is one of the best ways of recognizing what your body needs,” Lewis Prieto says.

2. Prioritize a consistent wake-up time over how many hours of sleep you get.

“Having a consistent wake-up time, even on the weekends, is far better for you than trying to cram in a certain amount of hours [of sleep],” Lewis Prieto says. That’s because of your body’s circadian rhythm, “which is the body's way of regulating moving from daytime to nighttime or vice versa. It's totally fine to catch up on the odd night’s sleep, but if you're constantly bouncing between two waking and sleeping rhythms, it’s going to put strain on your body. It can actually leave you feeling more tired because your body doesn’t know what it should be doing.”

3. Headspace doesn't consider technology at bedtime a total no-no.


Screens and their blue light emission, which suppress melatonin, have been demonized for their negative effects on sleep. It may be impossible to avoid blue light, but you can take steps to lessen its effects on your sleep. “It's more about how we can adapt technology in a positive way,” Lewis Prieto says.

Turn off notifications before bed to eliminate that impulse to check the latest headlines or respond to messages right away. Take advantage of night mode and occasionally switch out your e-reader for a physical book. If you like to watch TV before bed, that's fine—just make sure you’ve had a substantial break from screens at some point during the day. “It's more just recognizing, have you had a break from technology? Would it be worth taking half an hour to do a bit of a wind down? Maybe having a bath, shower, listening to some relaxing music,” she says. “Technology isn't bad. It's our relationship and the use of it that can sometimes be a problem.”

4. If timed properly, alcohol and caffeine consumption shouldn’t impact sleep.

Though a cocktail, beer, or glass of wine might help the 21+ crowd fall asleep quickly—alcohol is a sedative, after all—it won’t make for a restful slumber because alcohol suppresses REM (rapid eye movement), the stage of sleep associated with emotional wellbeing and memory consultation. Alcohol consumption also increases the likelihood of snoring. But that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a nightcap. Headspace recommends imbibers stop drinking boozy beverages at least two hours before bed in order to eliminate alcohol from the body so that it doesn’t interfere with sleep.

As for caffeine, which stays in the system longer than alcohol: The series says it's OK to have two to three cups a day before 5 p.m, but warns, “it may become problematic if you drink more or later than that."

5. Working out at night can actually aid sleep.

“For most healthy people, working out at night doesn't adversely affect the ability to sleep,” Lewis Prieto says in the series. “It may actually help you fall asleep and spend more time in deep sleep.” Just don’t do a high intensity workout less than an hour before bedtime in order to allow time for the body temperature to come down and the heart rate to regulate.

6. Napping won’t mess up your sleep cycle.


Napping is fine—as long as the naps don’t clock in at more than 30 minutes. “If I do start to feel a bit tired during the day, I'll go and have a nap,” Lewis Prieto tells Mental Floss. “That's, again, about listening to my body.”

7. Meditation doesn’t have to be done at bedtime to have sleep benefits.

In fact, “meditation done in the morning before you start your day can really help set the tone for the day,” Lewis Prieto says. “So when you do get to bed, you have not been carrying that sense of worrying or uncertainty with you.” She understands everyone encounters stressful situations throughout the day, but meditation can change our perspective on those instances as they arise.

Lewis Prieto recommends staying consistent with when and where you do the practice in order to increase efficacy. “When you're first starting, it's far more beneficial to think about a regular time, and that doesn't need to be really long; It can be as little as five or 10 minutes,” she says. “It doesn't necessarily need to be every day—maybe it's every other day, maybe it's two or three times a week—but it's far more useful to find that same time, however often you're doing it, in the same place.”

8. You don’t have to completely clear your mind during the meditation for it to be calming.

Many meditation newbies, including Lewis Prieto when she first started, think they have to completely turn off the brain in order to de-stress. “When you try to do that it feels like there's more thoughts than ever, and often you feel like you're not doing it right. Then a lot of doubt starts to creep in,” she says. “With meditation, we're doing the opposite of that.”

Lewis Prieto explains that meditation aims to bring awareness to what’s going through one’s mind in order to develop “a little bit of space between us and the thoughts” and eventually recalibrate the stress response that causes that fight or flight mentality. “As as a result,” she says, “you then tend to experience a greater sense of calm and spaciousness in the mind-body,” which will create a better environment for sleep.

9. You should actually get out of bed if you can’t sleep.


Forcing yourself to sleep triggers the fight or flight reaction that will only make you more alert.

Be patient and only get into bed when you feel truly sleepy in order to allow the brain to regulate sleep. If sleep doesn’t come, Headspace Guide to Sleep suggests getting out of bed and doing a quiet activity until you feel sleepy again. Listening to calming music can also help because it decreases the stress hormone cortisol.

Lewis Prieto also recommends visualization, or picturing an image or scene that promotes relaxation, which can have a calming effect.

10. Insomnia feels different to different people.

The series points out that everybody experiences insomnia—which is defined as “sleeplessness that can last from a few days to a few weeks”—differently, because we each have our own thoughts on what constitutes a "good night’s sleep." Stress and traumatic events like a death can trigger insomnia, and researchers at Washington University in St. Louis found that some forms of insomnia can be genetic.

“If we're not getting that restorative REM sleep, not only is the body not regenerating overnight properly, but we don't have the same capabilities or energy to deal with challenging or difficult situations,” Lewis Prieto says. “But you’re not alone with sleep issues and there are things you can do, mindfulness being one of them.”

Headspace Guide to Sleep is streaming on Netflix now.