Your alarm just went off. Ugh. Still tired, you groan and press “snooze” a couple more times before eventually forcing yourself out of bed. After doing the math, you realise you technically slept enough hours (even though you could definitely sleep more). Maybe you’ve even been trying to go to bed earlier and feel frustrated you aren’t reaping the benefits yet. What gives?
One potential reason: Your sleep hasn’t been as solid as you think. It’s been “junk sleep,” aka not long enough or high-quality enough to nourish your brain and body. For example, maybe you slept a full eight hours, but it wasn’t deep, or you kept waking up throughout the night.
The term “junk sleep” has over 36 million views on TikTok, but if you haven’t heard of it before, how can you know you’re dealing with it, what causes it and how can you beat it?
Signs you’re experiencing ‘junk sleep’
For many of us, waking up feeling tired is a given. It makes sense we need a few minutes (and a few cups of coffee) to fully get going. But at what point is inadequate sleep to blame – and a problem we need to address?
You wonder if you even slept and if you’ll be able to function.
If you’ve ever woken up and questioned if you actually fell asleep, you know what we’re talking about here.
“You might wake up and feel like you didn’t even sleep,” says Kristen Casey, a licensed clinical psychologist and insomnia specialist. “You wake up feeling unrested, groggy or irritable. This type of sleep doesn’t help us restore our bodily functions and causes difficulty for our functioning the next day.”
In other words, it’s not your run-of-the-mill desire to rest longer just because your bed feels so comfortable.
You’re not doing too hot emotionally, mentally or physically.
On the note of functioning, you’re struggling. You might feel extra anxious, depressed, forgetful, easily distracted or irritable, according to Phil Lawlor, a sleep expert at the mattress company Dormeo. Long-term, you might notice you get sick more easily, experience chronic pain, have digestive or cardiovascular issues, or feel extremely fatigued.
Additionally, you may notice changes in your eating patterns. “Another less-known symptom is that you may eat more than usual,” adds Nicole Eichelberger, a certified sleep expert specialising in insomnia and a consultant at Mattressive. This is because sleep deprivation — even one night of it — increases levels of ghrelin, the “hunger hormone.”
You don’t really believe in the importance of sleep and sleep hygiene.
Casey loves helping people look at how they think about sleep, since “our thoughts can impact how we feel, behave, and experience the world, including the sleep world,” she says. “For example, if you believe sleep isn’t important, you might not prioritise your sleep routine or care about waking up at the same time each day.”
This perspective doesn’t have to be an explicit “I hate sleep and sleep doesn’t matter,” either. It can look more subtle or entail “revenge bedtime procrastination,” for example, which is putting off sleep on purpose because you want more leisure time. (Understandable, but unhelpful!)
As a result, Casey added, you may not practice solid sleep hygiene, such as adding a restful buffer before bed.
What causes ‘junk sleep’ — and how to beat it
Many factors can contribute to junk sleep, some of which are more in our control than others. Here’s what to know and what you can do:
Casey listed various noises that could keep you from sleeping deeply throughout the night, such as children waking up, pets, traffic, your partner snoring or your roommate watching television.
Other environmental factors are ones we feel, she says, such as being too hot or too cold, sleeping on an uncomfortable mattress, physical pain, sickness and too much light.
The “feeling” aspects extend to our emotions, too. “When people are anxious or depressed, they often experience difficulty sleeping,” Eichelberger added. “This can be caused by a number of factors, including poor self-esteem, guilt, anger or a general sense of hopelessness.” (After all, if emotions weren’t a contributor, would Taylor Swift’s album “Midnights” even exist?)
The fix: Adjust what you can. Examples could be buying a soft mattress topper, turning up the air conditioning, installing blackout curtains, taking Tums to settle acid reflux, making sure you eat enough so you don’t wake up hungry, wearing earplugs and putting stressful items — like your work laptop — in another room.
These variables are more in your control, such as scrolling your phone or watching a movie late at night. According to The Sleep Foundation, it’s best to put your phone away an hour before bed.
“Although scrolling social media or watching television gives you something to do, your brain is responding to the stimuli, regardless of if you’re aware of it or not,” Casey says. “This can cause difficulty falling or staying asleep, in addition to experiencing unrestful sleep.”
Lawlor explained how that works: “Phones disrupt your sleep cycle, because the bright blue light emitted from LED screens on electronic devices is a sleep disruptor that fools your brain into thinking that it’s still daytime, so you won’t feel sleepy when it’s time to shut your eyes,” he says.
Additionally, substances — such as alcohol, in particular — aren’t a great idea, either, according to Casey. The Sleep Foundation says alcohol can decrease sleep quality between 9 and over 39%, depending on how heavily you drink. Alcohol and drugs can also disrupt your sleep by leading to nightmares.
The fix: For behavioral causes, we’re looking at some of the same solutions. What are some not-so-great things you’re doing before bed, and what is a better, doable option? Maybe that means drinking decaf coffee, reading in between catching up on a show and sleeping, taking a warm bath or using the bathroom before settling in the sheets.
If you are going to use your phone in bed, Lawlor encouraged putting it on night mode. He says it reduces blue light emissions and turns the brightness down. While not using your phone at all is a better option, this is the next-best thing. For an iPhone, click Settings > Display & Brightness > Night Shift. For an Android, click Settings > Display > Turn the dark theme on or off.
Still feeling rough in the morning? You may want to talk to a professional. “As always, remember to reach out to your doctor if you believe you are experiencing a sleep disorder or insomnia,” Casey says.
While there is some we can do to address all of this, we can’t cure it all. “Some of these we may not have control over, so be patient with yourself,” Casey adds. Validate your frustrations and do what you can — without judgment — to help yourself sleep. While sleep struggles can make you feel hopeless, you’re not completely out of luck.