CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCBD) — March is National Sleep Awareness Month, and local experts are stressing the importance of a consistent sleep schedule for overall health.

Dr. Melissa Milanak, licensed clinical psychologist at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC), has traveled the world studying the relationship between sleep and anxiety for decades — and she said many commonly held beliefs about sleep are actually myths.

“I think that for a lot of people what we find is that many times, what we’re doing that we think is helping to improve our sleep, is actually hurting our sleep,” said Dr. Milanak, whose roles also include associate professor in MUSC’s department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and faculty member with the Sleep and Anxiety Treatment and Research Program (SATRP).

She said many are surprised to learn you require less sleep as you age — and getting a full eight hours is a suggestion, not a hard-and-fast rule.

Getting seven to nine hours each night is average, Dr. Milanak said, but the right “sleep number” can be different for each individual.

“We want to be figuring out what’s the ideal sleep number that your body needs at this current stage in life,” she said.

She said as long as you fall asleep within 10 to 15 minutes of going to bed, wake up feeling well rested, and do not feel tired throughout the day, it’s okay if your number is higher or lower than eight hours.

Plus, she said, skipping an hour of sleep for an hour at the gym may be counterproductive.

Losing sleep makes it harder to lose weight, as sleep deprivation can cause your body to metabolize muscle before fat as it tries to hold on to energy.

“Research shows us that when we’re not getting the quality sleep that we need, those workouts don’t give us the benefits that we want them to,” she said.

More sleep doesn’t always mean better sleep, she added. Rather, consistency is key.

“Many times with sleep, it’s not the same as a camel hump that can just store water. We can’t technically store extra sleep,” she said. “The best way for us to have quality, restorative sleep consistently, is to have that consistent schedule seven days a week.”

She said trying to get to bed and wake up at the same time every day is an essential step in establishing a healthy routine.

“We wouldn’t eat healthy during the week, and have all snacks on the weekends, and think we’re adhering to a certain diet. It’s the same thing,” Dr. Milanak said.

One of her tips for winding down at night: pay attention to the roles of technology.

“It’s keeping our brains active instead of having that decompression time if you’re checking your email before bed,” she said.

In fact, she said the use of technology in the evening has been shown to delay the ability for adolescents to fall asleep by up to two hours.

Instead, she said, put down the screens and pick up a notepad. Before bed, jot down some thoughts from your day and your to-do list for the next day.

“Do it for about five minutes — you’ll be surprised by the things that come up. You’re not creating worries, but you’re basically taking that information and downloading it out of your brain. So then you can put it on the nightstand, and get in bed,” she said. “So you’re able to have that opportunity for your brain to shut down, and have that rest, relaxation, and restorative sleep.” 

For more information on sleep health from the American Heart Association, click here.