Sleep FAQs: Everything You Need To Ask About Sleep

Sleep Numbers To Know

1How quickly should I be able to fall asleep?
Most people should be able to fall asleep within 30 minutes. One reason many of us have trouble winding down is that we use the bedroom for reading, watching TV and even doing bills. Your brain thinks of the bedroom as a place to be awake, not asleep. To break the cycle, reserve your bedroom for sleep and together time. Talk to your doctor if you’re still having difficulty.
2How much sleep do I really need?
Most adults need seven to nine hours of sleep per night, but the amount varies by person and age. Seniors generally need an hour or so less than younger adults; teens, children and babies require up to several hours more. To determine how much sleep you need, find a time when you are able to fall asleep within half an hour and then wake up without an alarm clock the next morning feeling refreshed. Add up the hours you slept.
3How many wake-ups are “normal”?
Most of us experience mini-awakenings without even noticing them—up to 20 times per hour. However, when it comes to observable wake-ups, most people have about two or three per night. Talk with your physician if you’re waking more often, struggling to fall back asleep within 30 minutes, or feeling unrefreshed the next day. An underlying medical condition, a medication side effect or a sleep disorder may be the culprit.
4How long should I try to fall asleep (or back) before I get up?
Spend no more than 30 minutes lying in bed and not sleeping. After that time, go to another room. Find a relaxing activity, such as reading or meditating. Keep the lights dim, and avoid anything “alerting,” including electronics. Whatever you do, don’t stay in bed and stare at the clock. If your brain sees bed as a place where you’re frustrated and not sleeping, it becomes hard to detangle that thought. You want your brain to associate bed with sleep, not stress.

Sleep Aids & Tools

1How accurate are sleep tracking apps and wearables?
Experts agree that this technology still needs some work, but they do appreciate when patients show them the data that these devices have collected. It at least gives Doctors an idea of what patients' sleep patterns are like. What’s more, people may be more likely to use these devices than they are to fill out a paper sleep log or diary.
2Is it OK to try an over-the-counter sleep aid?
While sleep specialists agree that the sleep hormone melatonin may help regulate your sleep cycle, they don’t generally recommend over-the-counter sleep aids or even prescription medications. Sleep specialists prescribe medications only about 25 times a year. A lot of people are surprised to know that Docs are trying to take people off of sleeping pills. Over-the-counter and prescribed sleep medications have side effects such as confusion and they can affect your blood pressure, so you should talk with your health care provider before using any of them. Though a sleep aid may help get a patient through a short-term stressor, such as a death or other loss, it’s only a temporary fix. The gold standard is cognitive behavioral therapy. Using this method, a sleep specialist will identify why your brain has become conditioned to sleep poorly, then work to retrain your brain by modifying your sleep habits.
3What is the best temperature for sleeping?
Generally, you want to sleep in a cool room to coincide with the natural drop in body temperature that occurs during sleep. For many people, that falls somewhere around 68 F, but everyone is different. Your ideal may be as low as 54 F or as high as 75 F. You don’t have to concentrate on your thermostat alone. You can also adjust your sleep temperature with bedding and sleepwear. Once you’ve found what feels best for you, wear the same “sleep uniform” each night. Sticking to a routine helps your brain recognize when it’s bedtime.

Sleep & Your Diet

1Do certain foods really make you sleepy?
It depends on the person. Some people may be very sensitive to “sleepy” foods like turkey, chicken, fish, eggs, and nuts, all of which contain the sleep-inducing amino acid tryptophan. Carbohydrates can also affect tryptophan levels, which is why big pasta meals make many people drowsy. Still, the best research data is regarding tart cherry juice. When patients ask for a natural sleep inducer, Docs may say to give it a try. Just have a glass before bed.
2When is it too late to drink coffee?
Doctors usually tell patients to stop drinking regular coffee, tea, cocoa and other caffeinated beverages at noon if they’re having problems with sleep. Still, this is just a guideline: Some people metabolize caffeine very slowly, so they may need to limit caffeine to breakfast time. Also, certain people are highly sensitive to even small amounts of caffeine. They may do best to avoid even the decaffeinated versions of things like tea, coffee and cola, since they still will contain a small amount of caffeine after processing.
3How does alcohol affect sleep?
Many people still swear by the nightcap to help them doze off at night. The problem is, when your body finishes metabolizing the alcohol during the night, you’re likely to wake up. Drinking alcohol before bed can increase snoring and worsen acid reflux—both of which can impact your quality of sleep. Alcohol also prevents you from slipping into the deeper, more restful stages of sleep. If you do choose to have a drink, do so at least three hours before bedtime.

Sleep Challenges

1What’s the best way for spouses to deal with different sleep schedules?
Start by talking about how much sleep each of you requires. Examine what you’re doing now, and be honest about what isn’t working. Many couples are happier having separate bedrooms for sleep, especially if one works night shift, snores, or tosses and turns. Partners who are only slightly out of sync—the classic early riser versus the night owl—might agree to follow their own schedules instead of waiting up for the other or groggily rising out of bed early. Remember: Being well-rested will help you enjoy each other’s company more throughout the day.
2How can I stop snoring?
Avoid alcohol within an hour or two of bedtime, and try sleeping on your side instead of your back. If nasal congestion is the cause, wearing nasal strips may also help. Still, any snoring is worth discussing with your health care provider. Snoring may be a sign of a serious condition called sleep apnea, which increases your risk of health problems like diabetes and hypertension and increases your odds of having an accident while driving.
3Why do I wake up with my mind racing at 1 a.m.?
This type of sleep pattern may be a throwback to humans, pre-electricity days. Historian Roger Ekirch notes that, prior to the invention of the lightbulb, people typically slept in two intervals divided by an hour of wakefulness around midnight. Sleeping for an eight-hour stretch may, say some sleep specialists, be counter to biology. Even so, you can take steps to mitigate nighttime wake-ups. Avoiding caffeine and alcohol within several hours of bedtime may help. So may treating health conditions such as restless leg syndrome and sleep apnea, which can jolt you awake, and easing chronic stress or anxiety.
4Could my medication be keeping me awake?
Yes, and not just the prescribed medicines. There are a lot of over-the-counter medications, as well as herb and vitamin supplements, that can also impact sleep. Medications can cause sleepiness, insomnia, nightmares or vivid dreams. Some even affect brain waves, preventing deep sleep. If you’re taking any medications and are experiencing sleep troubles—especially if you just changed prescriptions or started taking something new—talk to your health care provider. An adjustment in dosage or a switch to another product may remedy your sleeplessness. (Never discontinue a prescribed medication without your health care provider’s approval.)
5Why do women seem to have more trouble sleeping than men?
Women have more factors working against getting a good night’s rest. Women are more likely to be diagnosed with certain sleep-disrupting conditions, such as insomnia and restless leg syndrome. There may be physiological contributors, such as women’s hormones during pregnancy and before and during menopause, triggering or worsening sleep problems. And even social factors like marital status may contribute. For instance, some data suggests that women report being better sleepers prior to marriage, whereas men sleep better after they wed. Women also tend to be the main caretakers of both children and elderly parents, which can lead to nighttime worrying. In short, women’s sleep issues probably are an amalgamation of a lot of different factors. If it’s an ongoing, recurring problem and it’s affecting how you function during the day, you should be talking to your health care provider about it.

Sleep Myths & Truths

1Can sleeping in make up for lost sleep?
We do know the body has the capability of making up sleep to some degree. What is less certain is whether sleeping in can make up for all of the restorative properties associated with a full night’s sleep, including processes that take place at a cellular level. If you miss out on a little sleep during the week, sleeping in on Saturday may help a bit, but it shouldn’t be your regular long-term plan. Your best bet is getting seven to nine hours per night as often as possible.
2Will evening exercise keep me up?
For some people, evening exercise doesn’t impact sleep. But if you’re experiencing sleep troubles, avoid exercising within three hours of bedtime. Another factor to keep in mind: Showering is also stimulating for some people, so if you exercise at night and then take a hot shower or soak, you may be doubly sabotaging your ability to wind down.
3Is napping smart?
If you had eight hours of quality sleep last night, you shouldn’t need a nap. Napping when you are already well-rested can affect your body’s “sleep drive.” (Each day, your body has a drive for a certain amount of sleep.) If, on the other hand, you’re a little sleep-deprived today, napping can help you feel better. The trick: Keep it short—ideally 20 to 30 minutes but no more than one hour—and time it before 3 p.m. Sleeping too long will leave you “sleep drunk,” and napping too late may make it tougher to nod off that night.

Sleep & Health

1No matter how much sleep I get, I'm still tired. What's going on?
Part of the problem may be timing. Studies show that if your sleep schedule isn’t in line with your circadian rhythm (your body’s natural clock), you’ll still feel sleep-deprived even if you get 10 hours of shut-eye. Our circadian rhythm is impacted by the environment—such as LED lights and bright TV screens—as well as social and work schedules. Adopting a regular sleep schedule and bedtime routine may help improve your sleep quality. However, the cause may be something more serious, such as an underlying sleep disorder or a health condition. If you’re sleeping plenty and not feeling refreshed, don’t downplay it. Talk with your physician.
2Could a lack of sleep be causing [insert symptom here]?
Whatever your symptom it’s worth investigating if there is a connection to sleep. Sleep is a basic physical need, and when you don’t get enough of it, all of your systems are affected, including at the cellular level. Headaches, erectile dysfunction, symptoms of depression, forgetfulness, weight gain and impaired judgement all can be signs that you’re not getting enough sleep. Sleeping poorly can also make you look older: It’s during sleep that your body releases the human growth hormone that repairs skin and other tissue. It can even make you more irritable. Doctors say often, a person will come in with sleep apnea and the spouse mentions grouchiness. If sleep apnea is treated everyone feels better.