What Your Sleep Habits Are Trying to Tell You

Disrupted sleep can be a sign of a health problem. Here's what sleep experts say your sleep habits reveal about your health—and what to do about it

Solve your sleep problems

There’s no substitute for a good night of sleep. If you find yourself dealing with the same sleep problems, it’s time to make some changes. Here’s what you can do for a more restful sleep, depending on your sleep habits.

Beautiful young woman lying down in bed and sleeping, top view

You can’t drift off: Clean up your sleep

Your sleep habits can reveal important signs about your health, so how do you know when you have a sleep problem? About one-third of adults suffer insomnia during their lifetime, explains Shanon Makekau, MD, the Chief of Pulmonology & Sleep at Kaiser Permanente Moanalua Medical Center; 10 to 15 percent suffer from chronic insomnia. Dr. Makekau points out that insomnia can range from trouble drifting off to waking up during the night and being unable to fall back asleep.

If this sounds like you, Dr. Makekau says certain medications or substances—from caffeine to nicotine—and stress could be preventing you from rest, among other issues. “Often insomnia will improve with simple changes in sleep hygiene along with overall regression of life stressors,” she says. “If you have an extended bout of insomnia that doesn’t go away after you change your habits, it’s important to talk to your physician because insomnia could be a sign of an underlying medical issue.” What is sleep hygiene? Check out this guide to “cleaning up” your sleep.

High Angle View Of African Woman Sleeping On Bed

You’re exhausted when you wake up: Your diet could be to blame

Though there are plenty of causes for feeling exhausted even after you’ve slept through the night. Steven R. Olmos, DDS, the founder of TMJ & Sleep Therapy Centre, suggests analyzing what you eat before bedtime. “Having a meal low in fiber but high in saturated fats and sugar has been shown to produce more arousals or awakenings during sleep, which means that you will be more tired when you wake,” he explains. Sleep apnea might also be the culprit. Check out these 30 healthy eating tips that could change your life—and help you sleep.

Young Woman Sleeping On White Bed In Bedroom

You’re afraid you won’t nod off: Get up for a bit

Don’t stew in bed—get up, get out of your bedroom, and do something non-stimulating. It might seem counterproductive, but David Greuner, MD, says it breaks a bad cycle. “Most people make the mistake of switching positions until they eventually fall asleep—this is actually wrong,” Dr. Greuner explains. “Many sleep experts say the best thing to do is just get up, leave your room, and do something else that doesn’t involve sleep.” Eventually, you’ll become tired enough to doze off easily, he says. If that doesn’t help, try these 11 weird tricks that can help you fall asleep.

Young Woman Sitting On Bed Suffering From Headache

You wake up at 3 a.m.: Give up the nightcap

A late drink might help you fall asleep, but it will wake you later, warns Daniel Slaughter, MD. He recommends cutting yourself off at least two hours before you hit the sack. “Alcohol prior to bedtime will tend to generate insomnia in the middle of the night,” he explains, and it will be tough to fall back asleep. “This will reduce the amount of REM sleep,” he says—that’s the restorative part of your sleep cycle. (Here’s how to make sure you sleep through the night.)

Unhappy man in his bed covering his ears with a pillow, his girlfriend is snoring

You snore: See a doctor

Respiratory problems tied to sleep, including snoring, gasping for air, and interrupted breathing might mean you’re struggling with sleep apnea, says Dr. Makekau. The condition can cause daytime sleepiness, a sore or dry throat, morning headaches, depression, and memory trouble. Being overweight or having a family history of sleep apnea ups your risk, explains Dr. Makekau: It’s important to get checked out ASAP because the condition can leave you more susceptible to weight gain, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes. Supplement your doctor’s recommendations with these home remedies for sleep apnea.

top view of beautiful female feet stretching out of blanket in morning
LightField Studios/Shutterstock

Your legs have a life of their own: Plan an evening walk

Just as you’re drifting off you get a weird itchy or burning sensation in your legs, and you have an uncontrollable urge to move them. That could be restless legs syndrome, says Dr. Makekau. “Usually stretching, walking it off, or moving about can alleviate the discomfort,” she notes. “Other home remedies include avoiding alcohol and caffeine in the evening, taking a warm bath at night, and gentle massage.” You may want to talk with your doctor about possible nutritional deficiencies—sometimes the symptoms can be a sign you’re low in iron, vitamin B12, or folate, according to the National Sleep Foundation.

Beautiful african american woman lying in bed and sleeping, top view

You problem-solve in bed: Learn to relax

If your mind won’t shut down at night, stress could be getting the better of you, says Dr. Makekau. “Set a timer an hour before bedtime to step away from the screen and put down the phone. Free your mind of persistent worries by jotting down your stresses or what you forgot to do that day,” she shares. “Engage in stress-reducing activities only—a warm bath, yoga, meditation, or listening to relaxing music—to calm your body and mind and prepare your brain for bed. By the time you actually go to sleep, you’ll be that much closer to a peaceful slumber.” Try some of these mini-meditations to banish stress from your brain.

american cute girl sleep with happy dream on white bed , top view and overhead shot

Eight hours is never enough: Focus on quality

“Adults should get between seven and nine hours of sleep per night regularly in order to feel reset,” says Dr. Makekau.” As important as it is to log those hours, sleep quality is just as important as length time. Sleep should be continuous and uninterrupted, allowing you to experience REM and NREM—rapid eye movement and non-rapid eye movement—sleep states to feel the full restorative benefits of a good night’s rest,” she explains. (Do you really need eight hours of sleep a night?)

Beautiful african american woman lying in bed and sleeping, top view

You hit “snooze” 20 times: You need a sleep routine

Try to pick a time when you can wake up and get out of bed with the minimum amount of drama, advises chiropractor Alex Tauberg. “The body’s natural circadian rhythm is such that you can train your body to wake up around the same time every day,” Dr. Tauberg says. “This is a habit you have a lot of control over. Try to stay consistent with when you are getting up, even on the weekends.” This may mean making sure your head hits the pillow early enough (even on weekends) to get enough shuteye. “Continuing to change the time you wake up in the morning can have negative effects on your sleep cycle,” he says. Take your cue from these six things the bedrooms of sound sleepers have in common.

Girl lying in white bed on a pillow under the blanket. He covered his face with his hands. I do not want to wake up. top view. Beautiful long hair. Accessory sleeping Mask

You’re always waking up to pee: Get a checkup

“While this may be due to you drinking too much water before bed, it can also have other health-related meanings,” warns Dr. Tauberg. “Have yourself evaluated by your doctor. You may be experiencing signs of diabetes or possible prostate enlargement.” Before you jump into bed tonight, check out these helpful tips from sleep doctors for improving your slumber.

Medically reviewed by Renata Chalfin, MD, on April 15, 2020

Lindsay Tigar
Lindsay Aurora Tigar is an experienced digital editor and blogger in NYC. Her blog, Confessions of a Love Addict, has a large following around the world, thousands of subscribers and hundreds of thousands of unique visitors a year. A book project based on her blog is under development and represented by theJames Fitzgerald Agency.The New York Post named her New York City's most eligible single in January 2014. She was also selected as one of New York's most desirable singles by the lifestyle dating website, Rachel & Chris, and has partnered with several popular dating blogs to create viral content. She is part of the HerCampus Blogger Network and spoke at their summer conference in New York on "How to Be a Powerhouse Blogger." She's a social media and digital media guru with big followings on Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest.She freelances for several sites, including Shape.com, eHarmony.com,AskMen.com, Engagement 101 and more. She's also the resident dater forWomen'sHealthMag.com, writing weekly about her dating adventures in her 'Dater Diary' column.