Figuring out if you have a sleep disorder versus poor pre-sleep habits (commonly referred to as your sleep hygiene) is a bit of a “chicken or the egg” type of situation.
Are you not sleeping well because you have poor sleep hygiene? Or do you have a sleep disorder that then causes you to stay awake, resulting in unhealthy sleep habits (i.e. scrolling Instagram into the wee hours)?
Below, experts break down the identifiable differences between a diagnosable sleep disorder and the signs that you just may not be practicing good sleep hygiene. Read on in order to get a decent night’s rest.
Sleep disorders will cause more daytime sleepiness than usual.
“Most people with poor sleep hygiene can usually still function well during the day, and there’s no impairment at work, school or doing things like driving,” said James A. Rowley, chief of the Division of Pulmonary, Critical Care & Sleep Medicine at DMC’s Detroit Receiving Hospital in Michigan. “With proper education, poor sleep hygiene can be fixed and sleep will improve relatively easily. This is not the case when it comes to a sleep disorder.”
And while sometimes your sleep hygiene can cause you to feel drowsy during the day ― yes Netflix, I am still watching ”Friends” at 3 a.m. ― consistent daytime sleepiness is one of the biggest red flags that you may have a medical issue, said Ellen Wermter, a board-certified family nurse practitioner and Better Sleep Council spokesperson.
“If you have good sleep habits and still feel that your sleep quality is poor, that’s a sign it’s time to make an appointment with a specialist,” she said.
Sleep disorders have a consistent pattern.
The daytime sleepiness many experience with a sleep disorder can be caused by a few overarching reasons, according to Windel Stracener, a practicing family physician in Richmond, Indiana.
It’s a sleep issue if you find yourself lying awake for long periods of time before falling asleep on most nights, not being able to stay asleep once you do nod off, waking up extremely early, feeling like you haven’t slept at all, or dozing off periodically during the day (including while driving). It could possibly be a result of such conditions as sleep apnea, insomnia, restless leg syndrome or narcolepsy.
“It’s important not to self-diagnose,” Stracener said. “Keep a sleep diary and make an appointment with your family physician so you can discuss what may be causing your poor sleep and what the next steps are.”
Make sure to note in your sleep log any caffeine or alcohol consumption, how much time you spend in bed before you fall asleep, how often you wake up at night, when you wake up in the morning and how well you sleep overall, Stracener said. This will help your doctor recommend the proper changes to get you sleeping more soundly. They also may refer you to a sleep specialist who can run more detailed tests.
You need good sleep hygiene, particularly if you have a sleep disorder.
“Sleep helps your body’s systems recharge, repair and become rested for the next day,” Stracener said. “Good sleep hygiene will help you fall asleep faster and get the quality rest that your body needs to be healthy.”
Not getting enough sleep on a regular basis can leave you at increased risk of health conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease, he added. That’s why it’s important to set yourself up for good sleep regardless of whether you have a disorder or just poor habits. Wermter listed five major areas to master when it comes to sleep hygiene:
- Exercise: “For most, it doesn’t matter when, just do it,” Wermter said. “If you notice that working out close to bedtime makes it harder to wind down then try to reschedule it for another time of the day.”
- Light: Get more of it in the morning and less in the evening. Natural light within 30 minutes of waking up will help reset your circadian clock and using blue light filters at night will help you get better quality sleep.
- Schedule: Try to wake up and go to sleep the same time every day, even on the weekends. “Regularity helps your brain predict and plan for maximum sleep efficiency,” Wermter said.
- Disruptors: The big ones being caffeine and alcohol. Caffeine in particular can affect you longer into the day than you might realize, so try to cut any consumption of it by mid-day. And while alcohol can initially make you drowsy, it’s a common culprit for waking you up in the middle of the night, so try to not drink it too close to bedtime.
- Environment: A decent mattress, comfortable bedding, silence or white noise and a cool room can make all the difference in how quickly you’re able to fall asleep.
You need to talk about your sleep.
“People who think they have a sleep disorder should talk to their primary care physician about their sleep,” Rowley stressed. “Many doctors may not ask about sleep issues during visits, so it’s important to bring it up.”
But you should also talk about your sleep with your partner, or anyone you share a bed with.
“Some people are very tolerant of poor sleep or adapt over time and don’t realize how far from optimal they have drifted,” Wermter said. “A bed partner can help identify problems with sleep.”
For example, sleep apnea, a sleep disorder that affects an estimated 22 million people in the U.S., has common symptoms associated with it such as snoring, teeth grinding and gasping or choking. Thrashing, tossing, or turning can all be signs of periodic limb movement disorder, a condition that 80% of people with restless leg syndrome have and one that can greatly disrupt sleep. Simply asking your partner if your sleep patterns are distressed may be all you need to figure out if your lack of sleep stems from hygiene or disorder.