Bad Sleep or a Sleeping Disorder? How to Know and What to Do Next

When most people think of reducing inflammation in the body, diet usually comes up first. Aside from supplements and herbs, what you eat matters for inflammation. But what’s often overlooked is the connection between 3 other factors. These are sleep, stress management, and daily movement.

I call these the CORE 4 of wellness, and they’re the pillars that work together synergistically to reduce inflammation in the body.

bad sleep or a sleeping disorder

When clients ask where they should start, I tell them: If you have no clue, start with your food and your sleep. Cause you gotta eat and you gotta sleep to live.

And although it’s a daily required part of our lives, good sleep sometimes feels like this unattainable mythical creature (especially after having kids.) And when we put good sleep on the back burner, it usually ends up feeling like a huge feat to address it once we get to the point that it *has* to come front and center.

bad sleep or a sleeping disorder

Many questions I hear from clients relate to wondering if there are just some tweaks that can be done to fix bad sleep… or if they truly have a sleeping disorder. The bottom line being:

Most people don’t know what good sleep is.

So let’s do a little unpacking of what qualifies as good sleep, bad sleep, and when it’s time to see a sleep specialist.

What is good sleep quality?

What’s interesting about sleep is that we get used to a certain set of conditions based on what’s going on in our life, and sometimes can lose sight of what our baseline actually used to be. So when we think about whether or not our sleep is good or bad, many people have no clue.

woman hitting alarm after good night of sleep

They know how they feel when they wake up and throughout the day. But they’re not really aware of when and how that shift happened to create their current sleeping condition.

So to get some guidelines on what good sleep actually is, I asked colleague and sleep specialist, Sheryl Guloy, PhD. This is how Sheryl describes good sleep:

“Good, restorative sleep is one that cycles through sleep’s different stages over the course of a typical night of sleep, which we refer to as a sleep episode. However, timing does matter in that a good alignment between when you sleep and your actual body clock or circadian rhythm provides for a more restorative sleep than when these are misaligned with each other.

  • In terms of the average recommended hours of sleep for an adult, 7 to 9 hours of sleep is the recommended amount.
  • In terms of nighttime awakenings, it is actually normal to wake up over the course of the night, since your sleep cycles from awakening to light to deep to REM sleep, every 90 to 120 minutes.

These awakenings can be so short that people do not necessarily remember them. However, nighttime awakenings are problematic if they prevent you from experiencing full or enough sleep cycles over the course of the night.

For instance, those with untreated sleep apnea will tend to awaken numerous times during a sleep cycle as they struggle to breathe.

Other people, those with sleep maintenance insomnia, find that they cannot fall back asleep easily after waking up at night. They may find that it takes longer than thirty minutes to fall back asleep, and some may not even be able to go back to sleep at all.”

What’s the best way to track sleep?

In a world of growing technology, there are more and more devices claiming to be able to track sleep. However, many sleep specialists have warned to not take these readings as gospel as some of the trackers aren’t super accurate.

laptop, mug, diary on bed

According to Sheryl,

“When we begin coaching people on sleep, we recommend tracking sleep for two weeks using a paper-and-pencil or online diary. We’ve found, though, that the people we work with like using good, old-fashioned paper-and-pencil over online ones.

We use this data to help people understand their sleep patterns.

However, we are also aware that some people can become more anxious when tracking sleep. For this reason, we don’t recommend continuous tracking.

On the other hand, we do recognize that some people like to use wearables or mobile apps to track their sleep. If they find that doing so helps them to be more mindful or to learn more about their sleep patterns, without triggering anxiety-related or compulsive behaviours, then great.

It’s important to realize, however, that wearables and sleep apps are not necessarily more accurate than paper-and-pencil diaries and journals; they do have issues with accuracy as well.”

What are common symptoms of bad sleep?

Aside from seeing less than the minimum hours of sleep in a diary or on a device, it can be difficult to determine if you’re actually having bad sleep. Sheryl states that,

“Chronic daytime sleepiness, poor memory, poor reaction time, poor decision making, and issues with emotional regulation are some symptoms of sleep deprivation.

Sleep deprivation is also associated with cardiometabolic diseases, such as heart ailments and diabetes. Growing evidence supports a link between sleep deprivation and dementia.”

tired woman in bed with a book on her face because of bad sleep

All of these chronic conditions warrant the implementation of an anti-inflammatory diet, but especially anti-inflammatory lifestyle choices.

The four pillars: diet, sleep, stress management, and exercise all work synergistically to help the other 3 improve, and will inherently improve insulin sensitivity and inflammation in the body as well. Not only does this improve metabolic markers, but it also helps with weight loss.

When to see a sleep specialist

It can also be hard to determine what the line is between just bad sleep and a sleep disorder. So I asked Sheryl when it’s time to see a sleep specialist:

“It’s important to speak with a sleep specialist when you are experiencing chronic daytime sleepiness. However, the issue is that people can become so used to being sleep deprived that they no longer feel as though they are.

For instance, research has shown that when people first experience sleep deprivation, they can recognize that they are sleep deprived.

However, after two weeks or more, people may tend to report that they do not feel as though they are lacking sleep, even when they are.

It’s also important to think of sleep as being part of one’s lifestyle and not take it for granted. As such, we coach people on developing good sleep habits, especially those whose respective circadian rhythms are at odds with their work hours; those who travel often; or those who want to boost their performance.”

That being said, it can be easier to determine between the two by first cleaning up your sleep hygiene, and then reassessing.

Get started by grabbing our free Sleep Hygiene Assessment and Kit. 👇

bad sleep or a sleeping disorder
bad sleep or a sleeping disorder

Dr. Sheryl Guloy (Co-Founder of Somnolence +) is a learning scientist, researcher, educator, and consultant in improving learning and performance through innovative research, development, and technology. She works with other researchers, organizations, and networks on knowledge translation efforts. More simply put, she works to get the latest research into programs, services, and technology so that more people can get better sleep. Her interest in sleep began with her own sleep troubles and her realization that she is a true night owl. Through Somnolence+, she aims to make sure that more people know about their own sleep and have strategies and tools to help them sleep well. You can find her at the Sleep Well blog or on Instagram and Facebook @somnolenceplus

Laura Brigance, MS, CHC

Author: Laura Brigance, MS, CHC

Laura is a Nutrition Specialist and Certified Health Coach with a Master of Science in Nutrition. Her goal is to help women reduce inflammation, balance blood sugar, and regain natural energy with an Anti-Inflammatory Diet + Lifestyle.

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