Ask The Sleep Specialists: FAQs

Why am I so tired?

Why am I so tired?“Why am I so tired?” is one the most commonly searched questions in Google around the world. This is also one of the most common reasons for people to see a sleep specialist.

Our general approach when looking in to causes of tiredness and planning treatment is to look at 4 areas:

1. Lifestyle factors such as poor nutrition, lack of fitness, work and stress management
2. Underlying medical conditions that may be having an impact on energy levels
3. Sleep patterns, sleep problems, and quality of sleep
4. The possible existence of sleep disorders contributing to symptoms.

Evaluating these areas involves a detailed clinical assessment, and often includes a sleep study. So, if you are feeling more tired than you expect, think about each of these 4 areas and whether there may be factors you can work on or need to discuss with your health professional.

For a more detailed post on this topic follow this link.

What are the effects of poor sleep?

Poor sleep can have harmful short and long-term effects.

In the short term, poor sleep can make us feel tired as well as increase our risk of accidents or errors.

Longer term, poor sleep increases the risk of depression and anxiety as well as high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity.

Read more about the effects of poor sleep in this post.

Can I catch up on missed sleep?

To some extent we can catch up on missed sleep. However, recent research suggests that sleeping shorter some days, such as during the working week, and then longer on the weekend to catch up can result in significant problems with both tiredness and reduced performance.

So we should be aiming to get enough sleep each night, rather than eating in to sleep and expecting to catch up later.

However, if for some reason we don’t get enough sleep on a given night, we can take a nap or longer sleep the next night to make sure we’re not falling behind on our sleep.

See this post on how much sleep to aim for each night.

Does smoking, alcohol or caffeine affect my sleep?

Nicotine, alcohol and caffeine are all stimulants and as such they will affect your quality of sleep.

Caffeine can contribute to sleeping problems and in general, it is recommended not to drink caffeine late in the day. Even if we can get to sleep with the presence of caffeine, the stimulant affect can remain in the body for some time affecting the quality of sleep we have.

alcohol and sleepAlcohol is often used to help people get to sleep. Whilst alcohol can help us get to sleep it may affect the quality of sleep once we fall asleep. People can experience more frequent awakenings and in some instances, insomnia. Alcohol can also worsen the symptoms of other sleep problems such as sleep apnoea, disrupting sleep further.

For more on alcohol and sleep, see this post.

Smoking is also associated with an increased prevalence of sleep-related respiratory disorders, which further worsened sleep quality and daytime sleepiness. Research shows that cigarette smokers are four times as likely to report feeling unrested after a night’s sleep compared to non-smokers.

Smokers also spend less time in deep sleep and more time in light sleep than non-smokers, with the greatest differences in sleep patterns seen in the early stages of sleep.

Are day-sleeps (naps) beneficial?

Naps can be good or bad, depending on whether people do or do not have problems with sleep. If, like many of us, we are just not getting enough sleep and feeling tired during the day, then naps can be a great strategy for catching up on sleep and feeling less tired. However, if we have trouble getting to sleep at night or staying asleep at night then napping during the day can exacerbate this, taking away sleep that would otherwise occur during the night.

For more on naps see this post or listen to this interview:

How many hours of sleep do I need?

How much sleep we need varies depending on the individual person. We know for adults, the average amount of sleep people need is seven hours or more but there is some variation.

Some people say they get by fine on six hours of sleep or even sometimes less, whereas others find unless they get eight hours of sleep per night they are not functioning well.

However, whilst we tend to use that benchmark of ‘Do I feel okay?’ to guide how much sleep we need, it may be that there are other factors (that we may not be aware of) that mean we actually need more sleep – even if we feel that we’re functioning well.

How much sleep do I need?For example, if we’re getting six hours sleep at night and feel that we are functioning well, there may actually be consequences of lack of sleep, such as changes in blood pressure or metabolism that we are unaware of, so it is important to try to average around seven hours of sleep if possible.

Also, the amount of sleep we need varies over our lifetime.

As teenagers, the average amount of sleep needed is nine hours, whereas by the time we’re in our 80s, we’ll often only sleep between five and a half to six hours.

So a good general aim is to try to get seven hours of sleep per night as a minimum.
However, if we recognise that this is not enough for us, feeling tired if we are averaging this level, we may need to get a little longer than this.

Not sure how much sleep you may need? See this post.

When should I see my doctor about my sleep problem?

Many sleep problems are related to lifestyle factors, so this is the place to start if you feel like you’re not sleeping well.

Ensuring that you’re allowing enough opportunity for sleep, sufficient time to wind down before sleeping and not undertaking stimulating activities prior to retiring to sleep is important. However, if despite these measures, you still find that you’re sleeping poorly, that is when you should discuss it with your doctor, who may recommend referral on to a sleep specialist.

Many other health conditions can have an impact on sleep, so if you’re not sleeping well it may be an indication that other medical conditions are causing trouble with sleep.

Alternatively, it may be that you have a sleep disorder, which is either disturbing sleep or making sleep not as refreshing as usual.

What’s the difference between sleepiness and tiredness?

Many people misjudge the state of sleepiness. People often confuse the sense of being sleepy with the sense of being tired, fatigued, and the wish to rest the mind and the body.

The state of being very sleepy is a state of having to almost struggle to stay awake. When you’re close to that state, you’re sleepy.

In contrast, tiredness usually involves a lack of energy, fatigue, and perhaps some negative reaction, such as frustration or irritability towards this lack of energy.

Some people describe this as a “fog”, where they’re not fully awake but unable to sleep. Becoming aware of the state of your mind and body can help you respond more wisely to sleepiness and tiredness.

Should I have a pre-sleep routine or unwind before my scheduled bedtime?

Creating a “buffer zone”, or quiet time, for about 30-60 minutes prior to your scheduled bedtime can help to prepare your mind for sleep and increase the chances of detecting sleepiness.

This time can be spent engaging in activities that are enjoyable on their own rather activities that are taken as a means to an end.

Sleep rulesUsually, soothing activities such as reading or listening to calming music can be helpful. In contrast, having a rigid routine can sometimes increase anxiety or tension, so it’s good to be a bit flexible and not overly dogmatic with your routine.

See this post for help on reducing your rules around sleep.

What will a sleep study tell my sleep specialist?

During a sleep study lots of things are measured, including brain waves, muscle tone, eye movements, breathing, heart rate, oxygen levels. Seeing how all these different body systems interact gives valuable information on what is happening during sleep and what effects that is having – this information is then used by a sleep specialist to determine treatment options and the goals of treatment.

This video gives an overview of what’s involved in having a sleep study.

Where do I find more information on…?

What is the aim of SleepHub?

At SleepHub our aim is to help you achieve better sleep and a more balanced lifestyle. We do this by empowering you with the information and support you need to attain your sleep goals.

Who is behind SleepHub?

David Cunningtondavid cunnington and Kris Pierce and Kris Pierce are health professionals working in the area of sleep and wellness.

David is a specialist sleep physician delivering healthcare to clients with complex sleep problems. He is also the co-director of the Melbourne Sleep Disorders Centre, a multi-disciplinary sleep clinic for the diagnosis and treatment of sleep disorders.

Kris has been helping people in the health and wellness field for over 25 years. With her background in nursing and health education, Kris is committed to helping people achieve better health and better sleep through understanding their sleep problems.

Kris and David have focussed their expertise to promoting sleep health through education, research and advocacy.

Read more about David Cunnington and Kris Pierce.