Frequently waking up? Restless legs? Night sweats? A GP reveals what your sleep can tell you about your health.
Medically reviewed by Dr Juliet McGrattan (MBChB) and words by Becky Fletcher
We spend an average of a third of our lives sleeping and it’s a fundamental biological process which helps the body repair and recover overnight.
So why do many of us still feel exhausted when we wake and struggle to function the next day? Contrary to popular belief, simply getting eight hours sleep a night, may not be enough in itself for our bodies to carry out their complex restorative functions, if we’re not getting the quality sleep required during these vital hours.
“If you suffer from a bad night’s sleep, you are likely to feel tired the next day as your body hasn’t had an opportunity to repair cells and restore usual brain functions,” Dr Roger Henderson explains. “A bad night’s sleep could be a result of a late night, a restless night or an inability to fall asleep.
“However, it’s important to remember that it is not only the number of hours you sleep that is important, but the quality of your sleep that will determine how tired you feel during the day. You may think you are getting eight hours sleep; however, you may be having a highly disrupted sleep with frequent waking, which you may not necessarily be aware of. A poor quality sleep will leave you feeling just as tired as a small amount of sleep.”
If you are struggling to sleep during the night, Dr Henderson reveals five frequent night-time disturbances and what they could be saying about your health.
Thirst and frequent loo breaks
Are you waking up feeling thirsty or recurrently needing to go to the loo?
“Thirst and excessive urination could indicate diabetes. When you have diabetes, excess sugar (glucose) builds up in your blood. Your kidneys are forced to work overtime to filter and absorb the excess sugar. If your kidneys can’t keep up, the excess sugar is excreted into your urine, dragging along fluids from your tissues. This triggers more frequent urination, which may leave you dehydrated. As you drink more fluids to quench your thirst, you’ll urinate even more.”
If you are concerned that you may have diabetes, LloydsPharmacy offers free type 2 diabetes screenings in store nationwide, which involves determining your risk of developing type 2 diabetes using a simple finger prick test. The pharmacist will also offer lifestyle advice and recommend ways of reducing your chance of developing type 2 diabetes or help with managing the condition if you are diagnosed.
Frequent trips to the toilet can also be caused by an overactive bladder, urine infections and prostate problems (in men). See your GP if your bladder is interrupting your sleep.
Snoring and constant fatigue
“Snoring and always feeling tired could be a sign of sleep apnoea. Sleep apnoea, occurs when soft tissue in the back of the throat collapses and obstructs the airway, causing you to repeatedly stop breathing during sleep. This causes oxygen levels in the blood to drop and carbon dioxide levels to increase. If this process occurs frequently during the night, sleep becomes fragmented and non-restorative, and you will wake feeling sleepy and fatigued.”
It can be difficult to diagnose if you really do have sleep apnoea at home, however to get a full and thorough diagnosis you may have to visit a sleep clinic and undergo a sleep study overnight.
Night sweats are common in women around the menopause and can severely affect sleep. They are a common reason for women to choose to use hormone replacement therapy.
Night sweats outside of the menopause are an important symptom that needs investigating, particularly if they are associated with weight loss. Whilst sometimes the cause is unknown, they can potentially indicate serious conditions including cancers.
“Night sweats could mean hyperthyroidism. Amongst other things, night sweats can be an indication of an over active thyroid. If you regularly wake drenched in sweat, firstly check that your room isn’t too hot but if this continues see a doctor.”
There are other symptoms of an over-active thyroid, including nervousness, mood swings, sensitivity to heat, swelling in your neck, irregular or unusually fast heart rate, twitching or trembling and weight loss. If you have the symptoms of an overactive thyroid and visit your GP, they will take an initial blood test followed by further tests if you are diagnosed.
“Restless leg syndrome produces some odd sensations in the limbs. These sensations can be painful or not; they can occur as an ache, itch or tickle. There is an overriding need to move your legs around. It can be very distressing”.
The cause of restless legs is largely unknown but it can sometimes be due to an underlying health condition such as low levels of iron in the blood or an underactive thyroid gland and it’s common in pregnancy.
Taking regular exercise, reducing how much alcohol you drink and stopping smoking can help to reduce restless legs. It’s sometimes linked to stress and anxiety too so learning relaxation techniques might help to settle your legs and get you off to sleep.
See your GP if these tips aren’t helping as you may need some blood tests to look for underlying causes.
Frequently waking during the night
Frequent awakenings during the night could be caused by low glycogen levels.
“To carry out its essential overnight repairs and cell rejuvenation, your body uses energy in the form of glycogen which is stored in the liver. During the night, these glycogen stores get depleted at a rate of 10g per hour, of which 65 per cent is used by the brain.
“If this energy supply runs out, the liver send stress signals to the brain in the form of the hormone cort