You hit snooze on the regular, have been thisclose to falling asleep at your desk, and fantasize about nap time. But are any of these sleepy behaviors normal? We checked in with Daniel Shade, MD, director of the Comprehensive Sleep Center in the Allegheny Health Network to find out if your tired, bleary-eyed habits are normal — or a sign of trouble.
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Always Tired? 5 Signs to Watch Out For
1. Your alarm sounds like death to you.
What’s normal: Maybe you don’t hop right out of bed as soon as you hear the alarm. If you were in a deep stage of sleep when it blared, your brain hasn’t had time to flip fully into wakefulness and is still secreting sleep chemicals, explains Dr. Shade.
What’s not: Hitting snooze on repeat. Really, this isn’t “bad” behavior, but think about what your alarm is telling you: You’re getting up before your body is ready, says Dr. Shade. Sure, you can’t exactly use that as an excuse to be late to work (“my circadian rhythm told me to come in at 10 today…”), but consider pushing bedtime a bit earlier until waking up becomes easier to do.
2. You always want to nap.
What’s normal: Something big disrupted your sleep schedule last night (travel, your best friend’s birthday party) and you’re tired enough for a nap today. Taking a 20-minute catnap is a good idea to help you catch up on sleep and feel refreshed. (Doze off any longer than that and you can slip into deeper stages of sleep and wake up groggy.)
What’s not: You feel like you need a nap every day. “You should be able to function without a nap if you slept OK the past few nights,” says Dr. Shade. So if you’re getting seven to eight hours a night and are still tired, talk to your doctor. You could be suffering from a sleep disorder like sleep apnea or another health problem like thyroid disease or anemia.
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3. You consider coffee the elixir of life.
What’s normal: Having a morning cup (it’s healthy, too), and still feeling groggy after lunch — that’s why the siesta was invented! “Everyone has dips in alertness around the same time every day,” says Dr. Shade. This is a natural part of your biological rhythm, and they have a fancy name: a circadian trough. There’s one after lunch and then another around 4 a.m. — though we bet you don’t notice the second one. Getting up and moving is a non-caffeinated way to get adrenaline going to knock off the sleepiness, he says.
What’s not: You’re reaching for java all afternoon. If you need to rely on coffee to stay awake during the day and otherwise can’t function (like you fall asleep at your desk), it could signal you have a larger problem that needs fixing. While coffee is a great stimulant, drinking it after 3 p.m. is a no-no if you want to sleep well that night. To ID a possible issue, Dr. Shade asks patients to wear a fitness tracker that records your sleep habits. “The first steep is to see if you’re getting enough hours. If so, a sleep specialist would help determine what else is going on,” he says.
4. You worry at night.
What’s normal: We all have times when rumination takes over at night. However, habits like paying bills in bed online or doing work on the computer make your stress levels rise. Also, the blue light emitted from these devices inhibits melatonin release, a hormone that lulls you to sleep. Changing your bedtime routine is key here — don’t let business in your bedroom at all, says Dr. Shade.
What’s not normal: If a racing, “always on” mind interferes with your ability to fall asleep, anxiety may be to blame. Trouble is, it’s a chicken-or-the-egg situation. Anxiety causes sleep problems, but sleep problems also cause anxiety, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Any anxiety problems should be addressed with your doctor, which will improve your quality of life and sleeping habits.
5. You fall asleep quickly.
What’s normal: It takes you five to 10 minutes to fall asleep after climbing in. Your body needs time to fully relax in order to slip into slumber.
What’s not: Falling asleep as soon as your head hits the pillow (or before you even make it to bed), or taking longer than 30 minutes to sleep. Snoozing immediately indicates that you are tired — exhausted even. “Your body is saying: I’m reclaiming my territory. You need sleep now,” says Dr. Shade.
Longer than a half hour and you may be suffering from insomnia, which makes it hard to fall asleep. If you doze off quickly, it’s time to move your bed up in 15-minute increments until you’re getting an adequate amount. If insomnia is a concern, think about talking to your doctor. It’s not enough to take a sleeping pill and be done, but you should figure out the underlying causes behind the problem so you can get back to blissful sleep.
Originally published June 2016. Updated February 2018.