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5 Signs You Need Better Sleep

How long does it take you to fall asleep?

By Jennifer Thomas | January 23, 2020 | Rally Health

How well do you fall asleep? Chances are good that you probably feel, at least some days, that you aren’t getting to sleep as fast as you should or sleeping as well as you could be.

That’s no surprise given the stresses of modern life and the endless opportunities it offers to distract ourselves with TVs, cellphones, and computers — right up to the moment we close our eyes, expecting to drift off to dreamland. Unfortunately, getting a good night’s sleep isn’t always easy.

More than a third of adults in America get less sleep than they need, which is usually at least seven hours a night. But how can you tell when an occasional sleep issue, such as not feeling well rested when you wake up, becomes a real problem, like falling asleep at red lights while driving?

“I could be considered sleep deprived at times because I tend to stay up late answering emails or watching CNN,” says W. Chris Winter, MD, a board certified sleep specialist at Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine and author of the 2017 book “The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep Is Broken and How to Fix It.” “That’s different, however, from the person who works two jobs and drives an Uber and falls asleep every time he sits down, wherever he happens to be. That’s true sleep deprivation that needs serious attention.” 

Here are five more signs that you need better sleep:

1. Regularly lying awake for hours 

Wondering “when should I fall asleep after going to bed?” There’s no hard and fast rule about when to fall asleep or how long it takes to fall asleep. It’s perfectly normal to take 10 to 20 minutes to fall asleep. But if you’re still tossing and turning after an hour, that could be a problem sign. Likewise, falling asleep the second your head hits the pillow may be a sign you’re not getting enough sleep.

2. Excessive sleepiness

Being sleepy in the normal sense of the word — yawning, feeling drowsy — isn’t particularly worrisome, Winter says. But if you find yourself asking, “Why do I keep falling asleep?” that can signal an issue. When someone is so sleepy they feel they must sleep (even at inappropriate times), that they can’t prevent themselves from sleeping, that’s another matter.

“Without a doubt, a major sign of dysfunctional sleep or inadequate sleep is an enhanced drive for sleep — somebody who is excessively sleepy,” Winter said. “Feeling you can fall asleep whenever, wherever, as soon as you sit down, is not a sign of healthy sleep. If you’ve pulled up at a stop light and the next thing you know the guy behind you is honking because you fell asleep, that is not a good sign — that is a dangerous sign.”

3. Sleeping less than seven or eight hours a night

How long should you sleep? The recommendation for most adults is to get at least seven hours of sleep nightly, not just to feel rested the next day but to help fight off infections, learn new information, and help keep your appetite in balance.

The causes of sleep deficiency can range from lifestyle and work requirements to sleep disorders or environmental causes, says Phyllis Zee, MD, professor of neurology and director of Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine Center for Circadian and Sleep Medicine. Zee also distinguishes between sleep deprivation, which is often caused by people having little opportunity to sleep, and insomnia, which she defines as “the inability to get sufficient sleep or quality of sleep, when allowing sufficient time and opportunity for sleep.” 

4. Impaired memory and concentration 

Getting enough quality sleep boosts your memory and ability to learn. People with poor sleep quality often find it hard to concentrate. As a result, the ability to solve problems, make decisions, and remember details is often impaired. Reaction time is slower, finishing tasks takes longer, and more mistakes are made. One study found that getting less than seven hours of sleep ups your risk of being responsible for a car accident. 

“You often see people with sleep problems struggling with their memory or struggling to concentrate,” Winter says. “When your brain is trying to choose between finding a place to sleep and retain details during a lecture about Renaissance painting, sleep wins. You may be a huge fan of the Renaissance, but if your body wants to sleep, that is going to take precedence.”

5. Changes in mood, appetite, and serious health problems 

Sleep deprivation can affect everything from your ability to control your emotions, to your appetite, and your weight. Not getting enough sleep is also connected to higher risks for obesity, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and depression.  

“Bodies do not do well with inadequate or unpredictable sleep,” Winter says. “For example, shift workers, people who often display the worst signs of sleep deprivation, often have significantly bad objective health problems.”

What can you do to fall asleep?

Now that you know some of the problems lack of sleep can lead to, here are five strategies to to help you get better quality sleep:

1. Stick to a sleep schedule

Establish a bedtime and wake-up time and stick to them as much as possible — even on weekends. Ideally, that will help your body find a rhythm and settle into a regular cycle of sleeping and waking. 

“People get into trouble when they don’t fall asleep until 2 am, then sleep until 10 am instead of getting up at their regular time,” Winter says. “Adjusting your sleep to accommodate the time you fell asleep is never a good thing.” 

2. Enjoy a relaxing ritual

Kids enjoy cozy bedtime rituals, so why not adults? Turning off the screens, turning down the lights, taking a relaxing bath, and reading a good book can help you make a successful transition from a hectic day to sleepy time. 

3. Turn off the tech

Binge-watching TV, compulsively site-surfing, and keeping one eye on your Twitter feed doesn’t just keep your mind revving. It also bathes you in electronic blue light, effectively throwing your daytime/nighttime circadian rhythm out of whack and making it far more difficult to fall asleep. Turn off your screens at least 30 minutes before bed. 

4. Get some exercise 

Getting regular exercise, just not too late in the day, is good for you and for your sleep. Research indicates that a vigorous early morning routine may be especially good for deeper and more restful sleep.  

5. Eat less, sleep more

Studies show that large meals and spicy food in the evening can make it more difficult to fall asleep. So avoid eating that five-alarm chili two or three hours before bedtime. 

If you’re struggling to fall asleep at night or regularly feel exhausted, talk to your doctor. There may be some easy changes you can make to catch more z’s at night.

Jennifer Thomas
Rally Health