Eye twitches. Nighttime bathroom visits. Nosebleeds. What to make of these annoyances?
The answer is usually “not much.” You stare at screens all day and your eye might twitch. If you hit the gym after work and guzzle a gallon of water, a midnight bathroom trip makes sense. Or a winter visit to bone-dry Arizona dries out your nose. Symptom matches situation.
Even if a minor symptom strikes regularly, you might be inclined to brush it aside, chalking up your snoring or chronically cold hands to an unlucky genetic draw.
Yet, on occasion, small symptoms can signal that something’s up. It may not be serious, but an imbalance may be brewing, or something in your environment may be causing your body to react. Maybe it is only the dry air in Tucson. At times, however, the root cause is less obvious and the solution requires a bit more consideration — and possibly intervention.
We asked a handful of experts to shine a light on some common quirky symptoms. They offer their insights on possible causes, what you can do to ease them, and when it’s a good idea to seek the support of a trusted healthcare practitioner.
Possible Causes: Sleeping on your back, extra body weight, alcohol in the evening, sedatives, sleep apnea
Everyone snores on occasion, especially after a couple of alcoholic drinks. And a little snoring is usually benign, even though the person who’s sharing the bed might disagree.
But for the 22 million people in the United States with obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) — a condition linked to a variety of maladies, including metabolic syndrome — nighttime noise is a signal worth heeding.
Snoring occurs when throat muscles relax during sleep and partially block the breath as it passes through the airway, causing noisy vibrations. This is why alcohol and sedatives can be a trigger; they cause muscles to slacken more than usual. For people with OSA, the throat muscles relax so thoroughly that the airway collapses, stopping the breath completely for up to 10 seconds at a time.
As many as 95 percent of OSA sufferers snore, and the volume increases as the condition worsens. Age plays a role, too: OSA affects roughly 5 percent of the general population and 25 percent of those over 60.
“Men are more likely to have sleep apnea, especially in young and middle age,” says Phyllis Zee, MD, PhD, chief of sleep medicine at Northwestern Medicine. “The rate is almost two to one. But when women hit menopause, their risk of OSA increases.”
Zee notes that sleep-apnea symptoms often show up differently in women, so they’re often misdiagnosed. The classic signs include snoring and daytime sleepiness, but for a woman with sleep apnea, snoring may not be so prominent. Instead, she’ll experience insomnia or difficulty staying asleep. “If a woman with these symptoms is already in menopause, her doctor may think her sleep troubles are related to hormonal changes or just hot flashes,” says Zee.
If you suspect OSA, consult a healthcare practitioner. Many believe the condition is underdiagnosed. Left untreated, OSA can set the stage for a host of chronic conditions, including type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and cognitive decline.
What You Can Do: For snoring that’s not OSA-related, losing weight may reduce it. (Though not always. Many snorers are slender and many heavier people don’t snore.) Avoiding alcohol and sedatives also helps. And if you sleep on your back, try switching to your side. This prevents gravity’s pull on the front of the throat.
For sleep apnea, the first-line treatment is a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine, a device worn during sleep to keep air moving and prevent gaps in breathing. But compliance with this is sometimes challenging, notes Zee. Even when a CPAP machine does improve breathing, it may not foster optimal sleep for people who also struggle with insomnia.
“Treatment for sleep apnea should be multimodal,” says Zee, who recommends CPAP along with improving sleep hygiene — keeping electronics out of the bedroom and following a regular bedtime ritual, for instance. Other interventions, such as oral appliances fitted by a dentist, can be good alternatives to CPAP for those who can’t tolerate it.
Symptom: Eye Twitches
Possible Causes: Allergies, caffeine, eyestrain, stress, lack of sleep; may be a sign of a neurological disorder in rare cases
Stress, fatigue, and caffeine can all trigger involuntary contractions of the eye muscles, hence the tendency of twitches to occur at inopportune times — during a big presentation, for instance, or a first date.
Allergies and dry eyes can also cause eye twitching, says functional-medicine practitioner Amy Savagian, MD. Likewise, digital eye strain (DES) can trigger the contractions. (More than half of all regular computer users experience DES, according to some estimates.) Magnesium deficiency may be another factor. “Low magnesium is associated with cramps and irritated muscles,” says Savagian.
What You Can Do: Prioritize sleep, go easy on caffeine, and look away from your computer every 20 minutes or so. Magnesium supplements can ease stress and promote restful sleep, which may help prevent twitching. If the condition persists longer than a week, other muscles on your face or body join in, or your eyelids droop, consult a doctor.
Symptom: Night Sweats
Possible Causes: Menopause, thyroid issues, hypoglycemia, sluggish detoxification, certain medications, infection
As many as 41 percent of all primary-care patients report night sweats, and waking up drenched at 3 a.m. is more than just annoying: It can interfere with sleep quantity and quality.
Sweating does suggest your heart and circulatory system are in good shape, notes cardiologist Stephen Sinatra, MD; ossifying blood vessels have a harder time contracting and expanding.
But night sweats can still be a sign that something is off. It may be your blood sugar, because too many carbohydrates close to bedtime can cause the body to overheat. Spicy food and garlic can do the same.
For middle-age women whose periods have become irregular, the hormonal fluctuations of menopause are likely to blame. Likewise if a woman has just given birth: The body’s hormones fluctuate wildly in the first few weeks postpartum.
Other possible causes include thyroid dysregulation (the thyroid plays a key role in thermoregulation), as well as certain medications. Antidepressants, drugs to regulate blood sugar, and certain hormone therapies have all been linked to night sweats.
From a Chinese-medicine perspective, running hot at night is an imbalance of yin (cooling energy) and yang (warming energy). “Too much yang can be the result of many things: an infection, a chemical or heavy-metal toxicity, or some other kind of stagnation,” says Katherine Flesher, LAc, of Three Treasures Acupuncture in Minneapolis, who also treats her acupuncture clients for nutritional issues.
What You Can Do: Daily exercise regulates blood sugar and supports detoxification. Sinatra also recommends switching to a modified Mediterranean diet high in healthy fats and phytonutrient-rich vegetables, and avoiding refined carbohydrates. This will help control blood sugar and potentially ease night sweats.
“Definitely restrict foods that will put more heat into the body — things like alcohol, fried foods, and certain meats,” adds Flesher. Prioritizing cruciferous vegetables and other high-fiber, high-phytonutrient foods will support your detox system. You can also balance excess yang with acupuncture, she notes.
If you’re concerned about your thyroid, consult a healthcare practitioner, especially if you experience dry skin, hair loss, cold hands and feet, and weight-loss resistance.
Symptom: Tingling Hands
Possible Causes: Vitamin B imbalance, diabetic neuropathy, panic attacks
There are a few serious causes of tingling fingers, says functional-medicine practitioner Myrto Ashe, MD. One is excessive vitamin B6, sometimes from supplements. The other is vitamin B12 deficiency, which must be treated before it leads to permanent neurological damage. Tingling can also result from long-standing poorly controlled diabetes.
Panic attacks can also trigger this symptom. “When you breathe too fast, as during a panic attack, the carbon dioxide in your bloodstream is exhaled through your lungs, and that rapid drop in CO2 causes tingling,” says Ashe.
What You Can Do: “If your hands are tingling and you are taking a B vitamin, get off it immediately to see if your symptoms improve,” recommends Ashe. Consider having your B6 tested even if you don’t use supplements; some people have naturally high B6 levels and have never taken a vitamin.
Some multivitamins contain a lot of B6, she notes, so if you’re taking one, stop and see if symptoms improve. You may also consider blood tests for both B6 and B12. To ensure an accurate B12 reading, ask your doctor for both a B12 level and a methylmalonic acid test. If a vitamin problem is at fault, you may have to be patient: It can take several months for tingling to wane.
The best way to regulate carbon dioxide during a panic attack is to breathe into a paper bag. After that, she says, “the work is figuring out why a person is having a panic attack in the first place.”
Symptom: Lightheadedness or Dizziness
Possible Causes: Insulin resistance, inner-ear issues, nutrient deficiency
If you skipped lunch and feel lightheaded, consider the possibility of insulin resistance, a condition caused by the pancreas producing additional insulin to bring blood glucose under control. The only healthy response to a delayed meal is hunger, says Ashe — not lightheadedness or irritability.
If lightheadedness arises when you shift positions quickly and you suddenly feel like the room is spinning or you’re falling, the cause could be benign vertigo, a viral infection, or Ménière’s disease, caused by fluid buildup in the inner ear.
Ashe tests her patients for deficiencies in iron and other micronutrients if they report dizziness; she’s also observed a connection to gluten. Many have reported that their lightheadedness disappeared after giving it up. Some studies have investigated a link between gluten sensitivity and Ménière’s disease, but none has yet proven conclusive.
What You Can Do: Keep blood sugar stable by staying active, avoiding excessive carbohydrates and sugary snacks, and including healthy fats, high-quality protein, and high-fiber, phytonutrient-rich foods at every meal. If you suspect a micronutrient deficiency, ask your doctor to run tests for vitamin D, B vitamins, and iron, says Ashe. You might also consider a trial period without gluten.
Symptom: Cold Hands and Feet
Possible Causes: Thyroid issues, anemia, B vitamin deficiency, poor circulation, anxiety, Raynaud’s phenomenon
When a patient reports perennially cold hands and feet, “the first thing I think about is the thyroid,” says Savagian. Poor thyroid function is not the only reason for chilly extremities, but it is among the most common, especially for women.
The leading cause of thyroid issues in the United States is Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, a condition in which the immune system attacks the body’s own thyroid gland. Women are seven times more likely than men to have Hashimoto’s, and it frequently goes undiagnosed.
Other causes of cold hands and feet include anemia, a deficiency in iron or certain B vitamins, or generally poor circulation.
Anxiety can even play a role. “Anxiety can lead to contraction of the blood vessels,” says Savagian, making it harder for blood and oxygen to reach the body’s extremities.
A circulatory disorder called Raynaud’s phenomenon will sometimes constrict the small arteries in the hands and feet so severely in response to cold that digits go numb and turn pale or bluish. It can take up to 15 minutes for normal circulation to return. This disorder tends to disproportionately affect slender women, Savagian notes. While it might appear alarming, it is rarely serious enough to require medical treatment.
What You Can Do: Keep your core warm, suggests Savagian, because blood prioritizes the vital organs. Then get moving. When it comes to improving circulation, “exercise is incredibly beneficial for the peripheral arteries,” she notes. Studies have shown that fish-oil supplementation can also help ease Raynaud’s symptoms.
Avoid lifestyle triggers, such as smoking and excessive caffeine consumption, that cause the blood vessels to constrict. Manage stress and anxiety. If you suspect a vitamin or mineral deficiency, ask your doctor to run tests for iron and B vitamins.
If cold hands and feet are a persistent problem — and you experience other Hashimoto’s symptoms, such as fatigue, thinning hair, weight gain, and dry skin — consider ordering a thyroid test. (Find more on this at “Listen to Your Thyroid.”)
Symptom: Waking Up at Night to Use the Bathroom — Again
Possible Causes: Aging, adrenal dysfunction, varicose veins, prediabetes or diabetes
“Peeing at night is age dependent,” says functional physician Thomas Sult, MD. Shifting hormone levels and structural changes in the bladder, among other issues, increase the likelihood of heading to the bathroom at least once during the night.
That said, if you routinely get up to go more than twice before dawn, no matter your age, consult a doctor. For men over 50, it could signal prostate troubles, says Sult — especially if urinating itself has become difficult. In women who have given birth, frequent urination can be a sign of bladder prolapse, another issue to discuss with your healthcare practitioner.
Sleep apnea can also trigger frequent nighttime urination, so if you experience any other symptoms of sleep apnea — like snoring, daytime fatigue, or insomnia — consider discussing it with your physician.
Undiagnosed diabetes can cause frequent urination during the day and night, because of the stress placed on the kidneys. And varicose veins can lead to midnight bathroom trips because “all the fluid [that had stagnated in your legs] comes back into your system and causes you to have to pee,” says Sult.
Finally, waking up to pee can be a sign of adrenal dysfunction. The adrenal system governs sleeping and waking, and if it’s off-kilter it may send a wake-up call at 3 a.m. Most of us assume we woke up because we had to go to the bathroom, but more likely, we feel like we have to go to the bathroom because we woke up. The body can normally “hold it” through a night of sleep.
What You Can Do: See your doctor if you suspect problems with your prostate (men) or bladder prolapse (women). Increased urination — like weight gain and wild swings in blood sugar — can also be a symptom of diabetes, so be sure to check that with your physician as well.
Chronic stress is taxing to the adrenal system, so prioritize self-care, and do what you can to get the support you need.
Possible Causes: Nose picking, dry air, blood thinners, high blood pressure, allergies, antihistamines, and, rarely, liver disease or nasal tumors
A nosebleed occurs when the delicate blood vessels in the nose are damaged and break. “By far, the most common cause for bloody noses is picking your nose,” says Sult. “The second most common cause is dry air.”
Allergies can also trigger them — and, in a vicious circle, so can the antihistamines often used to combat them.
Certain factors increase the risk. “For some, nosebleeds are the presenting symptom that cause people to find out they have high blood pressure,” says Sult. Blood thinners, like aspirin or Warfarin, can also cause bleeding; even taking too much fish oil (a mild blood thinner) can be a trigger.
In very rare cases, nosebleeds can signal tumors in the nose or an uncommon liver disease that affects blood clotting.
What You Can Do: If you live in a dry climate or have allergies, try putting unscented, all-natural lip balm on your finger and (gently!) placing some inside each nostril to prevent bleeding. “That works better than nasal sprays,” says Sult, which are likely to dry the tissues even further. If dry air is a problem, use a humidifier.
Seek out expert counsel, says Sult, if you believe blood thinners, allergies, or antihistamines are a factor; if you feel blood run down your throat during a bloody nose; if your nose feels hard when squeezed; or if you notice a yellowish tint in your eyes.
The best way to treat a nosebleed is to blow thoroughly and then pinch the soft cartilage of the nose (where it collapses) for five minutes.