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Dossier: Stress and relaxation

Recovery myths: sound advice or false promises?

We’re all familiar with old-wives tales such as drinking a glass of red wine in the evening helps you sleep, coke eases nausea, and longer holidays are more relaxing than short trips. But is there any truth to them?

Text: Isabelle Fretz; photo: Sanitas

1. Wine helps you sleep better

Do you like to drink a glass of wine in the evening so you can sleep better? A study by neurologist Mahesh Thakkar from the University of Missouri shows that while you may fall asleep faster if you’ve had alcohol, you don’t sleep as deeply. He claims this is due to the messenger substance adenosine, which makes us drowsy. Drinking a glass of wine before going to bed releases too much adenosine into the body, which upsets our sleep-wake cycle, makes us sleep less soundly and means we wake up more often.

2. Coffee wakes you up and increases efficiency

Coffee livens you up, because caffeine stimulates the adrenal glands to produce the stress hormone adrenaline. However, this effect doesn’t last long. An hour after drinking coffee, you’ll feel weak, tired and irritable again. And then what do you need? Another cup of coffee! But there is some good news: researchers at John Hopkins University in Baltimore have discovered that caffeine can have a positive effect on long-term memory.

3. Counting sheep helps you fall asleep

You’ve counted 1, 2, 3, 4, …, 100 sheep, but you still can’t sleep. It’s not surprising, because counting the four-legged creatures is annoying. Scientists at Oxford University in England have found that you’re more likely to fall asleep if you focus on a relaxing setting, such as a beautiful beach or a secluded mountain lake.

4. Coke helps against diarrhoea

Diarrhoea can be caused by many things – stress, a virus, bacteria, drug intolerance, food poisoning and enteritis to name but a few. Coke has long been a household remedy against diarrhoea. Unfortunately, it’s likely to do more harm than good. The sugar in coke can actually make the diarrhoea worse. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends taking an electrolyte solution instead to replenish lost liquids and minerals. If the diarrhoea is caused by stress, relaxation exercises can help. If the diarrhoea lasts for longer than three days, you should consult a doctor.

5. Stretching prevents sore muscles

If you stretch before and after sport, you won’t get sore muscles. Not entirely true. Sore muscles are caused by small tears in the muscle fibres that occur when put under pressure. Stretching doesn’t mend these tears. Nevertheless, the Akademischer Sportverband Zürich (ASVZ) says that stretching before and after sport can prepare joints, muscles, nerves and blood vessels for the physical exertion and provide the necessary relaxation afterwards. What’s more, it’s also a good idea to stretch from time to time while you’re working. This improves concentration and gets the blood flowing.  

6. Exercise in the evening helps you sleep

Does working out before bed mean you’ll fall asleep quickly?  Unfortunately not. A meta analysis of 23 studies conducted by sports scientists at ETH Zurich indicates that doing intensive exercise less than 60 minutes before going to bed makes it harder for you to fall asleep. However, sport does have a positive impact on your immune system, metabolism and well-being. So there’s nothing against doing light physical activity before going to bed.

7. Tea with rum to heal a cold

It’s an old-wives tale that adding a shot of rum to your tea will get rid of a cold the next day. However, although warm drinks such as tea can help to loosen mucus, the alcohol merely weakens your immune system. So, next time you have a cold, drink pure tea and opt for a dessert-spoonful of honey instead of rum – it has an antibacterial and anti-inflammatory effect.  

8. Being idle is more restful

In an interview in the Tagesanzeiger newspaper, Jürg Kuoni said this isn’t true. People who actively take time to relax, he says, feel better than those who just laze around in their spare time. He believes it’s better to do something you enjoy. But don’t overdo it. For example: next Sunday, why don’t you take a gentle stroll in the morning, read in the afternoon and enjoy a delicious meal in the evening.  

9. Long holidays are more relaxing than short trips

Four weeks sun, beach, sea, good food and new cultural experiences sounds relaxing. And it is! But no more relaxing than a short break away. Just looking forward to the holiday makes you feel good and therefore more relaxed. A survey conducted by British market researchers David Gilbert and Junaida Abdullah showed that people who are planning or have just planned a holiday are happier than those who have no vacation to look forward to. So, if you want to experience these feelings of happiness several times a year, you should split your holidays into several shorter trips. And remember, four weeks at the beach may sound tempting, but if you’re not active (see myth 8), then you won’t really feel the benefits of your time-out.

10. TV helps you sleep

Many people like to snuggle down, turn off the lights and switch on the TV in the evening before going to bed. However, studies show that the flickering light and sounds of the TV can disturb your sleep significantly. According to the Lighting Research Center at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, the same applies to the blue light emitted by tablets and smartphones.

Using these devices for more than two hours before going to bed suppresses the release of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin by 23%. Melatonin controls our body’s sleep-wake cycle and is essential for restful sleep. In fact, the melatonin production in young people is even more affected by the short-wave light of tablets and smartphones. In a follow-up study, researchers found that the same effect can be observed in teenagers after just one hour.