Ask the Grumpies: Help me with my unusual(?) sleep problem!

Couchsnoozer asks:

I am in my early 40s, live alone with my pets, and for the past few years I’ve gotten into a terrible sleeping habit.  At night I conk out on the couch, sometimes as early as 8pm.  Like, I set down and I’m asleep instantly.  And I nap for 2-4 hours.  And the nap isn’t good quality sleep.  So then I get up, usually around midnight, and let the dog out and give everyone bedtime snacks, brush my teeth, etc. which takes about an hour.  Then I go to bed and sleep for 4-6 hours.  It doesn’t seem like that last set of sleep is very productive either.  It seems to be bad quality.  I’m tired all the time and I wake up tired.  My dad does this too, so it might be genetic, but I don’t remember him doing it when I was a kid.  I have tried so many times to stop doing this and it’ll work for a few days, maybe, and then I’m back to my old ways.  I don’t have the discipline to fix it!  Setting an alarm to go to bed doesn’t work either– I either sleep through it or turn it off.  I could just get in bed at 8pm, but I don’t want to get in bed at 8pm.  And lately I’ve been having trouble falling BACK to sleep once I get off the couch, and that is a new thing.

I know you’ve got readers who know a lot about sleep problems [ed.  I think she’s talking about you, gwinne] as well as doctors… do you have any advice for me?  I want to be less tired all the time!

Well, we seem to both be tired all the time even without falling on the couch and getting to bed later, so maybe it’s not the bad sleeping habits?  And just general middle-age/overwork/stress from [gestures broadly]?  Vit D helps #1 a lot, especially if she gets into the habit of taking it NOT right when she wakes up but a few hours later.  (I think my body gets used to getting it first thing in the morning and is extra tired if it doesn’t have it yet.)  And sleeping in two shifts was pretty normal before electric lighting, they say.

But it’s entirely possible that not getting a 7-8 hour stretch of sleep is problematic– you obviously know your body better than anybody.

Here’s some information on biphasic and interrupted sleep patterns.  Most of the Dr. Google links seem to think it’s a good thing and the only problem with having a biphasic sleep pattern is not having a set routine for it.  (Though this psychology today link ultimately ends on a negative note.)  Terms that may be useful in your quest:  biphasic, polyphasic, interrupted, segmented sleep.  (Shift sleep just gives a lot of links about people who have to work overnight.)

Anybody in grumpy nation more knowledgeable about sleep than we are have advice for Couchsnoozer?  Help!

18 Responses to “Ask the Grumpies: Help me with my unusual(?) sleep problem!”

  1. Michael Nitabach Says:

    I would try to accept & embrace this two-session sleep pattern, rather than fight it as the cause of poor sleep & consequent tiredness. For example, what about going to actual bed just before the time you know you are likely to fall asleep on couch? And upon awakening at midnight, treat it optimistically as normal & healthy, do usual one-hour stuff & go back to bed?

    This isn’t “scientific” advice, but just kind of personal experience w idiosyncratic sleep patterns. And it’s worth a try.

  2. Omdg Says:

    Go to bed at 8. I go to bed at 8 (ok, 8:30) and it is amazing. You may just be an early to bed – early to rise person. See if doing that helps you feel better.

    • Debbie M Says:

      Also, this strategy doesn’t have to be permanent. Maybe just try it a few times and see what happens. Going to bed crazy early can make sense when you’re super tired.

      I’m also wondering if you feel like you can’t go to bed until you’ve done an hour of prep work. Maybe if you can do that stuff right after dinner when maybe you still have some energy, then you can fall into bed immediately when you’re tired instead of perhaps putting it off by sitting on the couch, which you do allow yourself to do without the going-to-bed prep work.

      Also, you don’t mention alcohol, but many people find that alcohol lets them fall asleep more easily, but then they wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep. So if alcohol is involved, you could try having less or abstaining a few nights and see if that helps.

      Disclosure: I’m sleeping terribly myself these days. At night I can’t fall asleep for hours. During the day I get super sleepy and just go lie down for a minute, even though I know naps are not helpful to me. I easily fall asleep then, and then wake up later feeling groggy and dehydrated and icky. I fear there’s an inner two-year-old who enjoys sleeping when I’m not supposed to and vice versa. Or for some reason, at night I’m in the habit of thinking over the day and what to do tomorrow, whereas when I lie down mid-day, I don’t. My current plan is to try to do more exercise, which is also supposed to help people fall asleep better.

      • couchsnoozer Says:

        I don’t want to go to bed at 8 or 9 because that is my FUN time. [laughing/crying emoji here] But I would probably fall asleep.

        I also would probably not wake up at midnight- I do that because the dog needs to go out etc.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        It can’t be that fun if you’re asleep!

        The dog would probably shift if you shifted, (with a few accidents in between).

      • couchsnoozer Says:

        I KNOW [crying laughing emoji]

      • zenmoo Says:

        I tend to treat the early morning as my “fun”
        Time – as in I lie in bed and read from 4am-ish to 6am-ish (which is frankly all I want to be doing from 8pm to 10pm anyway)

  3. zenmoo Says:

    This is me when I try to fight my natural early to sleep / early to rise person tendencies. I am much happier if I just go with my natural inclination rather than pretending I will be sociable and try to stay up with my (night owl) DH. I inevitably fall asleep on the couch about 10 minutes after I sit down & wake up 2-4 hours later with a sore neck and find it hard to go back to sleep. I can stay up if I am “doing something” like work or chores but if I start to relax… zzz zzz zzz

  4. Jenny F. Scientist Says:

    It might be worth getting checked out for sleep apnea/ seeing a sleep specialist in general. I agree that it’s not inherently a problem, but if you’re tired and unhappy, it can be caused by sooooo many things that it’s hard to pinpoint just one.

    I go to bed at 7:30 sometimes and it has helped to acknowledge to myself that I just won’t get anything substantial/ not dinner related done after 5.

    • rose Says:

      Support for getting tested for sleep apnea. You are technically getting the hours of sleep but not getting refreshed. HUGE SIGN. Also the fact your brain is now not cheerful about having you ‘go back to sleep’ …. not proven science …. but for some people the brain figures out this act you call sleep is dangerous to it’s well being and the brain tries to avoid the danger………..

    • omdg Says:

      Yes totally agree with this, and also with the reduction in alcohol (if any) before bed. I also resisted going to bed early, but one day I embraced it and started feeling so much better. I love sleeping.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I’ve started conking out earlier (not 8!) and getting up before 6 even though my kids don’t get up until like 7:30 (really closer to 8, when they have to be online). It’s so nice to just be in my office without being interrupted. I have become an early riser, something I thought ended when I hit 12 years old.

        For me, the biggest change in sleep quality has been DH getting a cpap machine (so he no longer stores). Does couchsnoozer’s dog snore?

  5. becca Says:

    I agree sleeping in two shifts is more normal/healthy than many people, including perhaps OP, imagine. However, I think tiredness during the day indicates a problem.

    There are three basic scenarios:
    1) insufficient total sleep time
    2) sufficient sleep time, insufficient quality
    3) sleep quality and time that look good “on paper”
    A fitness tracker type device is a good tool here. They are imperfect, but so are medical sleep studies in which there is no dog to let out or other realistic factors.
    For 1) and 2), I would approach it as a stress/mental wellbeing/pandemic related issue, because the pandemic is impacting sleep of people in general (https://www.ajmc.com/view/how-have-sleep-habits-changed-amid-covid-19). That isn’t easy, but things that work for people include: *exercise (and consider the timing- some people need it in the early AM) *light management (dark room, going for a walk first thing, ect) *restricting evening or late night computer / device use *therapy *diet changes *good sleep hygiene (i.e. cool and dark room, avoid disruptive sleep partners, sleep in the bed, ect). Personally I will use my phone if I wake up, but only to put on a podcast with soothing voices (I used to listen to the radio a lot when falling asleep as a teen), and not twitter. I also try to ensure it is quite dark and cool.

    If it’s 3), I would then go to the doctor and ask about the sleep study to see if maybe there was something the device was missing something. If it turns out poster has an actual issue (like low vitamin D, restless leg syndrome, or full on depression/anxiety disorder), it may be time to try medication.

  6. Steph Says:

    My dad is like you, except in reverse. He goes to bed at like 8pm, and then around midnight he moves to the couch for 4-5 more hours. It seems to work well for him, and he claimed it was something that started in middle age. He’s an extreme morning person, happiest getting up around 4:30am.

    I’m not a sleep expert, but I’m curious about your statement “I don’t want to get into bed at 8pm” – are you internally resisting the idea of going to bed so early, so you end up conking out on the couch instead? Or if you actually get into bed that early, you don’t fall asleep or feel sleepy?

  7. Alice Says:

    I have two different bits of advice, neither of which you may want to take, but–

    Advice 1 is to embrace an early bedtime and go to proper bed early, but to get up early and have those early morning hours be your fun time. That’s pretty much what I do right now– I fall asleep around 9:15-9:45, but am up at 5:00. My me-time hours are 5:00-6:30. What I love about this time of day being my own time is that it doesn’t get taken over by work running late, my family having needs (sleeping people want very little), or anything else. I usually exercise, read, and do some writing. And if I’m exercising on a treadmill, I watch whatever I feel like. It’s really my favorite time of day at this point– consistently peaceful, often entertaining, and exactly whatever I choose to make of it. It’s also often a really nice way to at least try to set a tone for the day.

    Advice 2 is to reject the early sleeping time and make yourself stay awake through it. Keep your fun time in the evening, but don’t let yourself sit down on the couch or any other sort of comfy/soft space until ready to go to bed. Either watch television on a wooden chair or do it standing/walking (if you have a treadmill, for example). When I’ve been dead tired for one reason or another but sleep is not an option (deadlines, sick kid keeping me up the night before, whatever), the trick has always been to not slow down.

    And either way– probably the most powerful thing for getting good sleep is to establish a schedule of getting it– and to not short the hours too much. Whether you embrace an earlier bedtime or stick to following a later one, one major key is to not mess around with the hours. Which means no sleeping later on weekends or staying up later. There are a lot of other sleep hygiene things out there, but maintaining a consistent clock is a big one.

  8. First Gen American Says:

    Hmm…so I do have periods of this as well.

    Sometimes, I am Just legitimately exhausted and a week of going to bed early helps me catch up on sleep and then all is well for a while.

    Sometimes it’s excess caffeine related. I quit caffeine completely for a while and when I would drink any, Even if I fell asleep early, I wouldn’t be able to stay asleep because I was so wired,

    Last but not least, if I am not exercising enough I sleep terribly. The more out of shape and overweight, the worse it is.

    And it may be sleep apnea too.

  9. sleepy Says:

    Deepest sympathies.

    One of the first things to evaluate is to figure out if you are running with a chronic sleep deficit which you are not catching up on. The hours that you mention are not particularly high, so it could be that you are not getting enough and not catching up which causes a running deficit. e.g. if your current situation means that you actually need 8hrs sleep a night, but you are only getting 7, then by the end of the week you are 7 hours short, which is practically a full night’s sleep you are missing; no one can function properly if they miss a night’s sleep, so it’s not unreasonable to be functioning below normal on chronically insufficient sleep levels.

    Can you temporarily allow yourself a couple of weeks to sleep “as much as you need” just to see if that makes a difference? You might need more sleep than usual in order to catch up, but then that might level out at a lower amount (but slightly more than what you are currently sleeping). I worked terrible hours for years and when I got a break from that I let myself sleep as much as I needed: I was sleeping 12 hours a night for a while before my sleep naturally dropped back to normal levels. That’s an extreme case, but chronic sleep deficit is a non-trivial thing.

    Your statement “I don’t want to get in bed at 8pm” is completely rational. After a day of commitments to others, that small window of time between arriving home and going to bed is the only precious time for yourself each day. “Going to bed” is a marker for the end of the day and so going to bed early is a loud statement that there is simply no time for yourself in the day. Doing this on most days is a non-trivial thing and having strong emotions about this is completely rational. Moving “fun time” to the morning hours may not be a solution for you if mornings are marked with tiredness and the obligations of the day are at the forefront of your mind.

    So, you might be able to tell yourself that it’s okay to prioritise sleep over your fun time for just a few weeks to evaluate how much sleep you actually need. The starting point to any sleep problem is to quantify how much sleep you need every night for your current situation.

    You could consider a couple of ways to try this:

    Is your couch comfortable? if sleeping on the couch is not causing pain, then when you get home do your chores, get in your pajamas (or lounge clothes) and have a blanket nearby. Attempt to do your fun things, if sleep takes over, don’t fight it, just try to get as best quality sleep as you can. When you wake up later, move into the bed if you want to.

    If sleeping on the couch is causing you discomfort, then do chores and get into your pajamas (or lounge clothes) but sit on top of your bed. Attempt to do your fun things – you are not going to bed! But don’t fight sleep when it comes.

    The intention of this approach is to avoid “resenting” sleep, which can become a serious problem if you are already in sleep deficit. Allow yourself to have fun, but acknowledge that sleep might interrupt it, so make it so that if sleep comes you can at least be comfortable and have the best chance for quality sleep and as much as your body asks for.

    If one of these arrangements doesn’t seem too bad, then have a trial of it for a few weeks or a month, you might feel okay about letting the sleep takeover for a while if you know it is only temporary. If you start to notice a sustained improvement (particularly in your daily energy levels), then you can monitor the actual hours of sleep you are getting to see what you need right now.

    As a society we really don’t treat our sleep needs with much respect, so don’t blame yourself for this kind of problem. I lived in a country for a while where lack of sleep was a point of national pride; I found out after a while that eventually people would take entire days and full weekends to sleep in order to catch up on the lack of sleep during the week, so it was all just a ruse.

    Once your quantify how much sleep you need (after eliminating your sleep deficit), you can then start to evaluate if external / internal factors (stress / health) are making that unusually higher, and if there is anything you can do to reduce it (win lotto / increase exercise etc.).

    Good luck.

    PS you could also try taking magnesium before bed, it helps with muscle fatigue and is fairly harmless / cheap otherwise.


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