When it’s 2 A.M. and you’re still staring at the ceiling, it’s easy to chalk it up to the extra-shot latte you guzzled that afternoon or being stressed about an upcoming work presentation.
If you can fix your trouble sleeping by addressing the habits you think are at fault, great. If you can’t, you need to bring in medical reinforcements.
“There’s a perception that if you make your room dark enough and buy the right mattress, you can sleep well,” board-certified sleep medicine doctor and neurologist W. Christopher Winter, M.D., of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine, and author of the book, The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep is Broken and How to Fix It, tells SELF. “But people need to realise that, in some cases, there may be a limit to what you can do yourself.”
Zombies are everywhere. You might even be one. No, not The Walking Dead kind. But what else do you call it when a third of American adults have trouble sleeping to the point where they don’t often get the recommended seven to nine hours of rest each night?
Not getting sufficient rest can affect every part of your life. “Reduced sleep quality and quantity can lead to workplace errors, motor vehicle accidents, problems with concentration and attention, low mood, and other medical problems,” says Josna Adusumilli, M.D., a sleep specialist in the Department of Neurology at Massachusetts General Hospital.
In order to live your best life possible, both in and out of bed, be sure to mention the following sleep issues to your doctor.
Your partner or roommate says you snore a lot
If you’re a heavy snorer, there’s a chance you could have sleep apnea, a potentially serious disorder where your breathing repeatedly stops and starts in the night.
The most common form of this condition is obstructive sleep apnea, according to the Mayo Clinic. Obstructive sleep apnea happens when your throat muscles relax, creating flexibility that causes a vibration when you breathe, Dr. Winter explains. Voilà, now you’re snoring.
The sleep disruption aspect arises if your throat muscles relax too much, which can cause your airway to narrow, forcing oxygen levels in your body to drop. As a result, your brain basically scares you awake so that you can catch your breath, the Mayo Clinic explains. This can happen five to 30 times each hour in people with sleep apnea, the organisation notes, making it basically impossible to actually get quality rest.
Obstructive sleep apnea also raises your risk of serious health conditions. Those sudden drops in your oxygen level increase your blood pressure and strain your heart, which can increase your odds of heart attacks and abnormal heartbeats, according to the Mayo Clinic. In addition, people with sleep apnea are more likely to develop insulin resistance (when the body doesn’t respond properly to the hormone insulin, which is integral for regulating blood sugar). This can contribute to type 2 diabetes.
It’s possible to have sleep apnea and not actually be aware that you’re waking up in the night to catch your breath, Dr. Winter says. So you really should take note if your partner or roommate always tells you you’re snoring loudly. It’s not guaranteed to be sleep apnea, but it might be-and doctors can help you get treatment so you can sleep and breathe better in the future.
You consistently have trouble falling asleep
There are plenty of reasons why this might happen, Rita Aouad, M.D., a sleep medicine physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Centre, tells SELF. Perhaps you’re checking your phone right before bed, so the blue light is affecting your circadian rhythms. Insomnia or restless legs syndrome are also common causes, Dr. Aouad says.
Insomnia is a disorder that can make it hard to fall asleep and stay asleep, according to the Mayo Clinic. Anyone can experience bouts of insomnia that last for days or weeks as a result of stress or a traumatic event, but some people have chronic insomnia that lasts for a month or more. This kind of insomnia can happen all on its own, or it can be linked with medical conditions like anxiety and asthma. Medications like antidepressants, which can affect neurotransmitters that influence sleep, and cold medicines, which may contain caffeine, can also lead to insomnia.
Restless legs syndrome is a condition that causes an uncontrollable urge to move your legs, and it often happens at night when you lie down to go to bed, according to the Mayo Clinic.
“A lot of people with restless legs syndrome will get into bed and feel extremely sleepy, but their legs won’t relax enough for them to fall asleep,” Dr. Winter says. It may also make your legs twitch and kick while you sleep, so it’s pretty tough to stay firmly planted in dreamland.
Instead of trying to play sleep detective on your own and determine why you can’t nod off, call a doctor. “Once we figure it out, we can treat the underlying cause,” Dr. Aouad says.
You have trouble staying asleep
The list of things that can rouse you at night is long. This issue could be due to aforementioned problems like sleep apnea, insomnia, and restless legs syndrome. Another potential cause is acid reflux, which happens when stomach acid backs up into your oesophagus, causing a burning sensation that can disrupt sleep. Bruxism (a disorder that causes you to clench or grind your teeth), can also cause pain that jolts you awake out of nowhere.
Given that the list of potential causes here is lengthy and diverse, if you have trouble staying asleep, your doctor will want to do a thorough evaluation and ask questions about your symptoms. If you don’t have symptoms that point to an obvious cause, your doctor may want you to take part in a sleep study, where you go to a sleep centre or hospital so doctors can monitor your sleep patterns. That will help them recommend treatment for whatever is causing you to wake up too often.
You always need over-the-counter sleep aids to actually get some rest
If you’re on a long flight and need a little something to help you sleep, taking an OTC sleep aid isn’t a big deal, Dr. Winter says. With that said, you shouldn’t rely on one every night, because you can build up a tolerance to sleep aids and need more to keep getting the same effect. Beyond that, you’re ignoring the underlying issue behind why you can’t get to sleep in the first place.
These meds can also have side effects like feeling excessively groggy the next day. It’s really best to see a doctor to suss out the issue instead of essentially putting a bandage over it, Dr. Adusumilli says.
You feel tired even when you’re convinced you got a good night’s sleep
It’s actually normal to feel a little zonked after you wake up. The phenomenon is known as sleep inertia, and it should fade the longer you’re awake, Dr. Adusumilli says. But plenty of health conditions can cause relentless fatigue all day, like depression, chronic fatigue syndrome, and having hypothyroidism (when your thyroid doesn’t produce enough hormones, so you might feel sleepy).
Narcolepsy could also be the culprit. Since narcolepsy is a chronic sleep disorder that causes severe daytime drowsiness and sudden attacks of sleep, people who have it usually find it hard to stay awake for long periods of time, even if they got proper rest the night before, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Dr. Winter has attended to patients who have fallen asleep during sports practice, concerts, and even while delivering a baby. However, narcolepsy can also be subtle and just present as feeling tired all day long, he says.
If you’re always wiped out, it’s important to seek help from a doctor. They may have you answer questions from the Epworth Sleepiness Scale, a questionnaire that asks how common it is for you to doze off or fall asleep in certain situations. Each item has a score from zero to three, and the numbers are added up at the end. If you have a high number, your doctor may ask you to do a sleep study, Dr. Winter says. The data they collect can help them come up with a proper diagnosis and get you on the road to treatment.
You keep doing bizarre stuff in your sleep, like snacking or having sex
If you find that you’re regularly eating or wandering around while you sleep, holding late-night conversations with your significant other that you can’t recall, having sex while you’re asleep, or waking up to find you’ve moved items around without remembering, you need to see a doctor. All of these habits could be a sign of a sleep disorder known as a parasomnia, Sabra Abbott, M.D., Ph.D., a sleep medicine physician at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, tells SELF. This basically means you’re doing something strange in your sleep without realising it in the moment. “People are reluctant to bring it up because they can be ashamed of the things they do,” Dr. Abbott says. “But it’s important to talk to a doctor about it.”
Parasomnias can strike when you’re falling asleep or at any point in the sleep cycle, according to the Cleveland Clinic. If they happen when you’re falling asleep, you may have hallucinations or sleep paralysis, which is when you’re awake but can’t move your body for a few seconds or minutes, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
If they happen when you’re already asleep, it’s more likely that you’ll do something physical that may be dangerous. Parasomnias usually run in families, so you could have one due to pure genetics, but it can also be due to a brain disorder or issue like sleep apnea.
If you think you have a parasomnia, you need to checked out for a few reasons, Dr. Abbott says. One is that you could potentially harm yourself or someone else while you’re asleep, and the other is that there may be a treatment available to help. “We just have to find out the specific cause first,” Dr. Abbott says.
Even if your sleep problem isn’t as intense as waking up while unwittingly working on your night cheese, see a medical professional. They’ll help you take care of the problem and finally get a good night’s rest.