Your body is pretty adept at telling you when something is up—sniffles when you’re sick, a toothache when you have a cavity. But you might not catch those signals, say, while you’re sleeping.
Your body does all kinds of cool things during your nightly slumber sessions, like regulating hormones and repairing muscles, per the National Sleep Foundation. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that sleep can also give you clues about what’s wrong in your overall health.
“We look at ‘good’ sleep as being about both quality and quantity of sleep,” says Beena Jani, MD, family medicine physician at Summit Medical Group in New Jersey. “Getting insufficient sleep can lead to chronic medical conditions, but poor sleep hygiene can also be a sign of health conditions, too.”
I’m talking about conditions like anxiety, depression, asthma, and heart disease (yes, really). If you’re doing any of these nine things in your sleep, it’s time to listen up—your body could be trying to tell you something.
1. You snore constantly.
Don’t panic. Lots of people snore and it’s not necessarily a cause for alarm (unless the person you share a bed with just. can’t. take it anymore). But if your snoring sounds more like snorting or gasping for breath—and you’re excessively sleepy during the day—you might have something called sleep apnea, says Dr. Jani.
Basically, sleep apnea occurs for one of two reasons, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. It can happen when the upper airways become blocked repeatedly during sleep, which can reduce or completely stop airflow. In other cases, the brain may not send the signals needed to breathe. Either way, you actually stop breathing periodically throughout the night.
If your snoring has become a major disruption and you have other symptoms of sleep apnea, like waking up with a headache or dry mouth, you should definitely talk to your PCP, says Dr. Jani. Leaving sleep apnea unchecked can lead to high blood pressure and cause strain on your heart.
2. You wake up soaked in sweat.
Waking up drenched in sweat every night? First off, make some environmental changes. That means lowering the temperature of your bedroom a bit and dressing in lighter layers.
If that doesn’t help, it could be your hormones, because of course (isn’t it fun to be female?). Dr. Jani says that thyroid conditions and menopause can cause hormonal imbalances that lead to excessive nighttime sweating, so if you think hormones are to blame, don’t be afraid to tell your doctor. There are medications you can take to regulate your thyroid or ease your menopause symptoms.
3. You grind your teeth all the time.
The technical term for this is bruxism, and it happens when you slide your teeth back and forth over each other, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM). It can occur anytime during the day, but bruxism at night is often a bigger issue because it’s harder to control, per the NLM.
It can be caused by a laundry list of things: stress and anxiety, certain medications, caffeine and alcohol intake, or even just your oral anatomy. None of the causes are majorly concerning, but it’s worth doing a little investigative work if you’re grinding your teeth on the regular. Over time, you can wear down your enamel, plus all that clenching can cause tooth sensitivity, jaw pain, headaches, and other problems like TMJ and chipped teeth, per the NLM.
4. You wake up with awful muscle cramps.
One minute you’re peacefully dreaming, and the next minute you’re in agony, clutching the spasming calf of your leg…sound familiar?.
As far as sleep issues go, muscle cramps are super painful and disruptive, but usually pretty harmless, says Dr. Jani. If your leg cramps up at night once in a very rare while, it shouldn’t signal major health problems, but if your leg cramps up all the time—and it’s bad enough to wake you—you could be dehydrated, anemic, short on electrolytes (like calcium or magnesium), or suffering from arthritis or an orthopedic condition like flat feet. Fixable problems, but worth looking into with your doc.
5. Your partner said you did something weird in your sleep…but you don’t remember.
Talking (or even walking) in your sleep occasionally is generally considered “normal,” meaning it’s not really cause for alarm, says Dr. Jani. It happens when you’re aroused from sleep during the REM stage, becoming stuck in a state somewhere between sleeping and wakefulness.
While most of these things aren’t particularly bad for you, Dr. Jani notes there’s a quality of sleep issue to consider if they are happening all the time. You could also have a parasomnia, a kind of sleep disorder that causes unwanted experiences to happen during sleep, in which case seeing a sleep specialist would help. The fix for any of these problems might be as simple as cleaning up your sleep hygiene or cutting back on alcohol and caffeine, or as complicated as getting treatment for sleep apnea (which can also cause REM arousals), says Dr. Jani.
6. You’re always getting up to pee.
Overactive bladder or other bladder voiding issues can cause you to wake up during the night with an urgent need to pee. But there’s another possibility: It isn’t actually your bladder waking you up at all. Dr. Jani says that sometimes people think they’re waking up to pee, but really it’s something like sleep apnea causing their arousal (and once they’re awake, they become aware of the sensation to urinate and blame their bladder).
Before you make an appointment with your doctor, though, take a look at your nightly routine: If you’re hydrating a lot right before bed or taking a p.m. dose of a diuretic, it could be making you pee more during the night.
7. Your coughing wakes you up at night.
Excessive coughing during the night can be a sign of both asthma and heart disease, so if you’re not sick but still hacking away all night long, you should check in with a professional. “Asthma tends to get worse late at night,” explains Dr. Jani, “and people with heart disease may cough because lying down for a prolonged period of time causes fluid to back up in their lungs.”
Dr. Jani adds that it could be a sign of something less serious, too, like acid reflux or heartburn. Both can cause nighttime coughing, because a horizontal sleep position creates the perfect opportunity for acidic juices in your stomach to move up into your esophagus and cause irritation.
8. Your head is pounding as soon as you wake up.
As if waking up to a blaring alarm clock isn’t painful enough, you could be one of the unfortunate people who also wakes up to a splitting headache—and yes, it’s a real, specific condition. Dr. Jani says that hypnic headaches (or, as they’re appropriately nicknamed, “alarm clock headaches”) only happen during sleep, and they can hurt badly enough to wake you up. They’re pretty rare, but if you’re waking up at the same time every night in pain, go see your doc.
There are a few more common reasons why you might be greeting the day with an aching head, like migraines (nearly half of which are likely to strike between the hours of 4 a.m. and 9 a.m., according to the American Migraine Foundation), grinding your teeth, and (of course) sleep apnea (again).
9. You literally never sleep through the night.
If you’re waking up frequently during the night for no apparent reason, having trouble falling back to sleep, and/or waking up way too early in the morning (think 4:30 a.m.), you could be suffering from depression or anxiety, says Dr. Jani.
Repeated poor sleep quality not related to any clear physical symptoms could be your body’s way of telling you something’s not right with your mental health. There is zero shame in getting yourself a therapist and talking it out, says Dr. Jani—you might even find some relief (and get a few more hours of restful slumber).
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