Answers to Common Questions About Sleep: Part One 

5 Minute Read

General Questions About Improving Sleep

By Dr. Kayleigh-Ann Clegg, Clinical Psychologist and Clinical Content Specialist at CloudMD

I love when I get to host one of our monthly “Ask an Expert” seminars for clients – it’s one of the best parts of my role at CloudMD. We dig into a different topic each month, and there are always lots of great, thought-provoking questions. I recently hosted a webinar on the topic of sleep, and I think that we may have set a new record for how many follow-up questions we got.

And that doesn’t surprise me – navigating sleep and sleep issues can be challenging. There’s so much information (and misinformation) out there, it can be hard to know what’s true and what’s not. To help everyone better understand and manage their sleep patterns, I’ve put together a two-part guide with some practical tips and suggestions to try based on some of the questions I received after our webinar. This first part focuses on general questions about improving sleep, and part two focuses on more specific sleep challenges.

A disclaimer, though. While I can firmly vouch for the information here, it may not all be relevant for your specific situation. We’re complex creatures and there are a lot of different factors that can affect sleep. So, if you try some of these suggestions and still find yourself grappling with sleep, check in with a healthcare professional who can provide more tailored guidance based on the specifics of your situation.

That said, let’s dive into part one!

How can we manage hormones that affect sleep?

Stress hormones such as cortisol can interfere with sleep quality, as can having atypical (too high or especially too low) levels of testosterone. Experiencing fluctuations in hormones like estrogen and progesterone over the course of the menstrual cycle and during pre-menopause, menopause, and pregnancy can also impact sleep. Part of managing this is a hearty dose of acceptance and patience. Many sleep disruptions are temporary and resolve themselves. Another way of managing this is by focusing on what you can control, like practicing healthy sleep habits, maintaining a good sleep environment, and managing any stress. If you find the effects on your sleep especially distressing or long-lasting, reach out to your physician, as there may be additional ways to reduce or manage them.

Are sleep supplements worth it?

Different supplements may affect people differently, and how effective they are can depend on so many other factors, like when they’re taken, how often they’re taken, what they’re taken with, and so on. Unless a physician has done a full medical history and recommends and then monitors how a supplement affects you, save your money and ignore the hype when different fads pop up.

How can I tell if my circadian rhythm is off-track?

There are many factors that impact circadian rhythm (called zeitgebers), including light (the most important one), mealtimes, exercise, routines, and stress. The average adult circadian rhythm involves energy tending to increase in the morning from sun-up, dipping in the early afternoon, increasing a little in the early evening, and then dipping again leading up to bedtime. However, it’s possible for that rhythm to get shifted, either through habits that you may have or just naturally. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If you’ve got the energy that you need when you need it during the day and are getting quality sleep at night, your system’s working as it should be. Circadian rhythms are not necessarily one-size-fits-all; it’s okay if yours is a little different from the average if it works for you.

What’s the best time to go to bed and wake up?

There isn’t one. You may see various recommendations about the best times to sleep and wake; however, it really depends on the person, including personal circumstances, geographic region, and even genetics. Instead of focusing on the exact time ranges, focus more on being consistent and trying to notice your body’s natural cues of sleepiness and wakefulness with the cycles of day and night.

Is there a best position to get the highest quality of sleep?

It depends. While some sources do suggest that side- or back-sleeping tend to be better for sleep quality, it’s unlikely that there’s one best sleep position for all people. It very likely depends on individual preferences and individual circumstances. You may be advised to sleep in specific positions if you have certain medical conditions or are pregnant, for example. So, if you’re waking up feeling rested and not in physical pain, try not to worry about whether you’re in the optimal position or not.

How can I get more deep sleep?

The key here is how you feel. We tend to get most of our deep sleep in the first part of the night, so if you’re not feeling rest when you wake up, prioritize tweaking your wind-down routine or getting to bed a little earlier in the evening. Things like stress, different types of medications, age, and whether you’re getting enough physical exercise during the day to help build your body’s sleep drive can also have a big impact on the quality of deep sleep, so also reflect on whether any of those things might be coming into play. Finally, if you find yourself chronically unrested when you wake, consider speaking to a physician or participating in a sleep study.

Does decaf coffee affect sleep?

Decaffeinated coffee still contains a (very) small amount of caffeine, and we’re all different in terms of how sensitive we are to caffeine’s effects. If you typically have a decaf coffee in the evening and find you fall asleep just fine, aren’t waking up to use the bathroom too frequently, and wake up feeling rested, stick with your evening java! If, however, you’re having difficulties falling asleep, staying asleep, or not feeling rested in the morning, try moving it earlier in your day or skipping it altogether and see if that helps.

How does napping impact nighttime sleep?

Daytime napping can definitely affect sleep quality and usually is a good idea to avoid. If you’re taking daytime naps, it’s likely because you’re tired during the day, so look for ways to help your body produce the sleep it needs at night and get that circadian rhythm into better alignment. For example, be consistent in the times you go to bed and wake up, get some sunlight exposure earlier in the day, eat your meals at consistent times (remembering not to eat too late at night), incorporate some exercise into your day, and make sure you’re hydrated during the day to maintain daytime wakefulness (physiologically, dehydration can make us feel drowsy). There is one key exception to note here. In circumstances where your choices are to either be constantly sleep-deprived or take naps, it’s probably better to let your body take the naps. Just make sure to keep the naps short and have them earlier in the day.

Can you “catch up” on missed sleep?

When we sleep less than we need to feel rested on a given night, we accumulate what’s called sleep debt. So far, research suggests that clearing that debt isn’t so simple and comes with interest. For example, it’s not a straight 1:1 (as in, lose an hour of good sleep one night; make up for it with an extra hour of good sleep another night). Some research suggests that it may actually take days for our bodies to recover from a lost hour of sleep. Research also suggests that even when we do get back to our normal rhythms and “recover” from sleep debt, there may still be physical effects from the sleep we’ve lost. However, our bodies know how to get back in balance and will usually try to make up for some of the sleep debt we’re carrying by producing deeper sleep.

If you or someone you know is struggling with sleep or dealing with the effects of insomnia, help is always available. Going through your family doctor for an appropriate referral or checking out what’s offered through your EAP are both good places to start. CloudMD offers a variety of health and wellness programs, including Employee AssistanceMental Health Supports, and Telemedicine with a highly skilled nurse to help employees navigate the process. Connect with us to bring this innovative program to your organization.