Good sleep means different things to different people. Some of us need a full 8 hours each night to function well, while others only need 4 hours.
Sometimes, however, your sleep can get worse. But how can you tell if that change is normal or something you need to seek help for?
You can't, unless you know the signs to watch out for.
Take a moment to familiarise yourself with these signs because poor sleep can seriously affect your physical and mental wellbeing if left untreated. It can also be a symptom of an underlying condition that needs medical attention.
If you’re not sure how normal your sleep habits are, this article will show you when to worry about your sleep and who to get help from.
What does normal sleep look like?
A normal night's sleep is made up of 3 parts:
- quiet or deep sleep - involving 4 stages of increasingly deep sleep
- rapid eye movement (REM) sleep - when the brain is very active, the eyes move rapidly but the body is limp. Most dreaming happens during REM sleep
- short periods of waking for 1 to 2 minutes
For most people, a night of sleep involves 4 to 5 sessions of quiet sleep alternated with 4 to 5 periods of REM sleep. Most of us also wake up for 1 to 2 minutes approximately every 2 hours (this becomes more frequent towards the end of the night).
However, we usually don’t remember these short periods of waking if they last less than 2 minutes.
While we all have different sleep habits and requirements, there are sleep behaviours that suggest your sleep is of good quality and nothing to worry about. These include:
- falling asleep within 30 minutes
- waking up no more than once during the night
- falling back asleep within 20 minutes of waking up during the night
- feeling refreshed when you get up
- feeling alert and able to concentrate during the day
When to see a doctor about poor sleep
If you're finding it difficult to get to sleep, stay asleep or function normally during the day because you feel tired, it’s worth seeing a doctor.
It’s even more important to see a doctor if you’ve had these sleep problems for more than a month and lifestyle changes such as cutting out caffeine and creating a relaxing bedtime routine haven’t helped.
A doctor may ask you about your sleep routine, daily alcohol and caffeine consumption, and your general lifestyle habits, such as diet and exercise. They will also check your medical history for any illness or medication that may be contributing to your insomnia.
A doctor may ask you to keep a sleep diary for a few weeks to help them understand your sleep patterns. It’s worth keeping a sleep diary even before you see a doctor. Sleep diaries can help you record patterns and characteristics of your sleep, which you can then discuss with a doctor.
All you need to do each day is write down:
- what time you went to bed
- what time you woke up
- how long it took you to fall asleep
- the number of times you woke up during the night
How a doctor can help with poor sleep
A doctor will first try to identify and treat any underlying health condition, such as anxiety, that may be causing your sleep problems. They may also discuss what you can do at home to help improve your sleep.
You may be referred for a special type of talking therapy called cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which can improve your sleep in the long term. CBT is designed to help you avoid the thoughts and behaviours that may be affecting your sleep.
If you continue to sleep badly despite these interventions, a doctor may prescribe a short course of sleeping tablets.
However, you’ll usually only be given enough sleeping tablets for a few days or weeks because these tablets can cause side effects, will not treat the cause of your insomnia and can become less effective over time.
Do you need to see a doctor about your sleep?
You should now have a clearer idea of if you need to see a doctor about your sleep. If you are still unsure, ask yourself the following questions:
- do you struggle to go to sleep?
- do you wake up more than once during the night?
- do you wake up for long periods during the night?
- do you wake up early and cannot go back to sleep?
- do you still feel tired after waking up?
- do you find it difficult to concentrate during the day because you're tired?
- do you find it difficult to nap during the day even when you're tired?
- do you feel tired and irritable during the day?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, it’s likely that you have insomnia and you should see a doctor.