Sleepyhead answers common questions about sleep

When’s the last time you spoke to a sleep specialist?

Not recently?

It’s not surprising, since we are few and far between. Yet sleep is so important, and affects everything from our immune systems to the way we feel. There is a lot of information on the Internet and in the media about sleep, but some of it can be a bit conflicting and confusing. To nap or not to nap? Is caffeine really that bad for you? What do your dreams actually mean?

So as a Sleep Physiologist who sees sleep problems everyday in clinic, I have decided to start this blog to help answer some of the most common questions about your sleep to promote good sleep health.

Today I thought I would share a very common question:

Hi Sleepyhead, I have trouble both getting to sleep and staying asleep. Even when I sleep reasonably well I wake up after an hour and a half throughout the night. Sometimes I can get back to sleep again but other times I can be awake for hours. How can I a) stay asleep all night and b) go back to sleep after I have woken up. Any advice will be gratefully received. Thanks. Ray.

As I don’t know how long Ray has been suffering from this condition and many other significant bits of information such as his age, I can’t comment on whether or not this could be a sleep disorder, which it may well be and in which case needs to be treated us such. However, there are still management strategies we can all use to avoid these problems occurring, altogether.

So let’s focus on just a few of these strategies today:


Don’t give in to the lie in!

You might be thinking- why on earth would I give up my Saturday morning lie in, or Sunday afternoon nap- especially when I had a poor night’s sleep?! Now the important thing to note here is if you are totally happy with your sleep, then I am not asking you to change the habit of a lifetime. If you are finding it difficult to get to sleep or stay asleep, or you want to wake up feeling fresh as a daisy every day, then listen up.

First of all our sleep is regulated to some degree by what we call the circadian rhythm. This ‘internal clock’ helps us to know when to feel sleepy and when to feel awake.  Although it is always going on in the background, some of the things we do can make it more or less effective. Altering our bedtimes and wake times is one of those things- it responds fantastically well to a regular wake time, but becomes very sluggish when routines become irregular.

So, say Ray starts this regime tomorrow- he probably won’t have a good night’s sleep tonight from what he has said so it sounds like it might be really difficult to get up, and probably make him feel worse during the day right? Well, you’re right, in the short term.  But actually a little bit of sleep deprivation will encourage his body to return to its natural rhythm within a few days. I never said it would be easy! You cannot expect to fall asleep soundly every night at around the same time, and stay asleep if you keep changing the goal posts.


Do not nap unless you have to!

Similarly, naps do exactly the same thing. There is a lot of attention in the media on naps as research tells us that a small nap (no longer than 20 minutes) will improve our alertness and concentration in the short term. However, as we know sleep is a drive state much like hunger or thirst- when we snack in between meals, it makes us less hungry for the main event- if we nap in the middle of the day you have taken away your sleep drive, and in order to fall asleep you need to build it back up again, meaning a much later sleep time which is more disrupted throughout the night.

Of course, if you are operating heavy machinery or going on a long drive and you are tired, being alert and awake is imperative- try a cup of coffee 30-60 minutes before the event, followed by a 20 minute nap. The combination of caffeine and napping at the right time works very well.


Why are you going to bed when you are not sleepy?!

Lastly, we often make the mistake that if we have a poor night’s sleep or perceive ourselves to need a good sleep we go to bed early. This is a common misconception about sleep, and one us sleep specialists have to fight with regularly. You cannot force yourself to sleep more if your sleep drive isn’t full. You are better off waiting until you are feeling very tired, making you more likely to have a deep, uninterrupted sleep- even if you don’t get as many hours as you perceive yourself to need (yes, even if you have a very important meeting tomorrow!). Remember what we said- if you then get up at the same time every morning regardless, you will gradually fall into your natural sleeping pattern and if you truly need more sleep, you will feel sleepy earlier and you can skip off to bed! Yippee!


I always get challenged for these strategies (despite the very rigorous research behind them) as they go against the very strong social norms and beliefs we have made for ourselves. But ask yourself this- what do you want out of your sleep? Is it more important to have a cheeky lie in, or feel more refreshed in the mornings? Do you want to spend hours in bed not sleeping, or do you want some consolidated time getting the best sleep ever? We spend so much of our time improving our lifestyles like dieting and exercise- it’s about time we thought about sleep.


Good luck!




Check out our twitter page for more free tips and advice on sleep @sleepyclinic.