What are sleep disorders?Sleep disorders refer to conditions that impact one’s ability to get good quality, restorative sleep. While many people experience difficulty sleeping once in a while, those who suffer from sleep disorders have regular issues that leave them feeling exhausted when they wake up. Trouble sleeping at night can result in daytime lethargy. It can be a debilitating experience that takes a serious toll on mental and physical health. It can lead to weight gain, memory problems, relationship issues, and even car and workplace accidents. According to the American Sleep Association (AMA), as many as 50 to 70 million adults in the U.S experience sleep disorders. As such, it is important to identify the causes of sleep disorders to ensure your good health and quality of life.
Sleep disorder symptomsAlthough symptoms differ according to the type and severity of the sleeping disorder, general symptoms include:
- Difficulty falling and/or staying asleep
- Feeling fatigued or exhausted in the daytime
- Wanting to sleep or take naps in the daytime
- Unusual breathing patterns
- Unusual movement when sleeping
- Feeling irritable and anxious
- Unable to focus or concentrate
- Impaired work performance
- Weight gain
- Do you have difficulty staying awake when sitting still, reading or when watching TV?
- Do you feel irritable and/or anxious?
- Do you often feel sleepy during the day?
- Do you have trouble concentrating?
- Do you feel tired or fall asleep when driving?
- Do you have trouble regulating your emotions?
- Do you feel like taking a nap almost every day?
- Are your reactions slow?
- Do others tell you that you look tired?
- Do you need caffeine to get and keep yourself going?
Types of sleep disordersThere are many types of sleep disorders. While each has specific symptoms, the inability to get a good night’s rest often results in fatigue and tiredness during the day. Here are some of the most common sleep disorders.
InsomniaInsomnia is the inability to fall asleep or stay asleep at night. There are two types of insomnia – transient insomnia and chronic insomnia. Transient or short-term insomnia is usually due to a stressful life event such as the loss of a loved one. It can also be caused by jet lag or shift work. People who have transient insomnia often find themselves experiencing disturbed sleep and are unable to relax. People who experience chronic insomnia experience difficulties falling and staying asleep at least 3 days per week for at least one month. Sleep is not restorative and they often feel exhausted during the daytime. Chronic intermittent insomnia is characterized by a few nights of good sleep followed by many nights of sleeping issues.
Sleep apneaPeople who have sleep apnea experience pauses in breathing when they are asleep. Sleep apnea is a medical condition that causes the body to take in less oxygen, resulting in the individual waking up frequently at night. There are two types of sleep apnea – obstructive sleep apnea and central sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when airflow stops because the airway is obstructed or too narrow. Central sleep apnea occurs when there is an issue with the connection between the brain and muscles that control breathing. People with sleep apnea may not remember waking up at night. However, they wake up feeling exhausted and may feel irritable and depressed. It is important to see a doctor as soon as possible if you suspect that you or your loved one is suffering from sleep apnea as this serious sleep disorder is potentially life-threatening.
Restless leg syndromeRestless leg syndrome (RLS) is a disorder in which there is an overwhelming urge to move your legs (and sometimes arms) at night, although they can occur during the day as well. The need to move is often accompanied by tingling, aching, creeping, or uncomfortable sensations. The exact cause of RLS is unknown.
Circadian rhythm sleep disordersCircadian rhythm sleep disorders are caused by interruptions to our internal biological clock based on the light that regulates our sleep-wake cycle. Our brain releases melatonin, a hormone that makes us sleepy when there is less light. In contrast, our brain tells us that it is time to wake up when the sun rises. Circadian rhythm sleep disorders include:
Jet lagJet lag is caused by temporary disruptions to the circadian rhythm when you travel across time zones. People with jet lag experience daytime sleepiness, insomnia, headaches, and sometimes stomach issues as well. Jet lag symptoms are usually more pronounced after long flights. However, it is usually gone once your body adjusts to the new time zone.
Shift work sleep disorderShift work can mess up your biological clock. Many people who work at night, early morning, or on rotating shifts find themselves having a hard time adjusting to changes in their sleep schedule. Shift workers often have a negative impact on sleep quality, resulting in sleep deprivation and sleepiness. This can reduce productivity and safety at the workplace. The negative impact of shift work can be reduced by:
- Regulating the sleep-wake cycles by increasing light exposure during work (even though it is nighttime) and minimizing light exposure when it’s sleeping time. Blackout shades or curtains can be used to block daylight from entering the bedroom.
- Request a shift that is later, rather than earlier when changing shifts. It is usually easier to adjust forward in time rather than going backwards.
- Minimize the frequency of shift changes, although this can be difficult if you’re not in charge of work schedules.
- Taking melatonin or natural sleep supplements. Rilax is a natural sleep supplement that contains Lactium, a bioactive peptide extracted from the milk of Holstein cows in France, and L-Theanine, an amino acid extracted from green tea leaves.
Delayed sleep phase disorderDelayed sleep phase disorder occurs when there is a significant delay in a person’s biological clock. People who struggle with this disorder are not able to sleep earlier than 2 to 6 am, even when they try to do so. This causes them to go to sleep and wake up later than other people, making it difficult for them to keep to normal hours. For example, they find it extremely difficult to keep a 9 to 5 job or get to morning classes. Interestingly, people who have delayed sleep phase disorder do fall into a regular sleep schedule when they are allowed to keep their own hours.
NarcolepsyPeople who suffer from narcolepsy experience excessive, uncontrollable sleepiness in the daytime and may fall asleep without warning. ‘Sleep attacks’ can occur anytime. For example, it is possible for narcoleptics to fall asleep in the middle of talking or driving. Narcolepsy is caused by brain dysfunction and can also cause sleep paralysis, where an individual finds that they are unable to physically move right after waking up.
ParasomniasParamonias are a group of sleep disorders that are characterized by abnormal behaviors or movement during or just before falling asleep. They are more common in children, although adults do experience them as well. Common parasomnias include:
- Teeth grinding
- Jaw clenching
- Sleep talking
- Nightmares / night terrors
What causes sleep disorders?There are many causes of sleep disorders, including stress, anxiety, circadian rhythm changes, and underlying health issues.
Stress and anxietyStress and anxiety can make it difficult for one to fall and stay asleep. The negative impact on sleep quality can in turn cause even more stress and anxiety because you’re tired, having trouble concentrating, and worried about not getting enough rest.
Allergies and respiratory issuesColds, allergies, and respiratory infections can cause difficulty in breathing, especially at night. The inability to breathe properly can make it very difficult to fall and stay asleep.
Circadian rhythm disruptionsDisruptions to the circadian rhythm can make it hard to regulate the sleep-wake cycle, resulting in insomnia. This leads to excessive daytime sleepiness, exhaustion, irritability, and lowers work performance.
Chronic painChronic pain can be an underlying cause of sleep disorders such as insomnia. People who suffer from chronic pain may find it difficult to fall asleep. Pain may also cause people to wake up multiple times at night. Common causes of chronic pain include arthritis, fibromyalgia, back pain, inflammatory bowel disease, and migraines.
Underlying medical issuesSometimes, an underlying medical issue can be the cause of sleep disorders. As such, it is important to have a medical practitioner properly diagnose sleep issues to rule out any underlying medical issues. If it is indeed so, dealing with the issue will resolve the sleep disorder.
Sleep disorder treatmentsWhile treatments for sleep issues vary according to the type of disorder, it usually includes medical and lifestyle changes.
Medical treatmentsMedical treatments for sleep disorders include:
- Natural sleep supplements
- Sleeping pills
- Medication for underlying health issues
- Cold or allergy medications
- Breathing devices
- Dental guard for teeth grinding
Lifestyle changesIn addition to medical treatments, lifestyle changes can also work to improve sleep quality. Adjustments that you can consider include:
- Having a regular sleep schedule in which you go to bed and wake up at the same time every day including weekends.
- Limit caffeine intake especially from the afternoon onwards as caffeine can stay in your system for up to six hours.
- Exercising to reduce stress and anxiety.
- Have a balanced diet.
- Decreasing the use of alcohol and tobacco.
- Eating smaller meals before bedtime.
- Maintaining a healthy weight.
- Avoid watching TV and using devices that emit blue light before bedtime.
ConclusionSleep is important to your health and well-being. The inability to get good quality sleep can hinder you from living a full, good quality life. If you suspect that you have a sleep disorder, contact your doctor as soon as you can. Follow our blog on “How to improve deep, restorative sleep?” for more information.
Medically Reviewed by:
Y. M. Khoo
PhD, MSW, MPPA, LCSW
Y. M. Khoo has over 20 years of experience in the mental health field. She obtained her master’s degree in social work, specializing in mental health, from Washington University in St. Louis, and her doctorate in social work from Saint Louis University. A licensed clinical social worker, Y. M. has experience working with adults with mental health and substance abuse issues in inpatient, outpatient, and residential settings, as well as forensic patients, and individuals with co-occurring developmental disabilities and mental illness. Y. M.’s research interest focuses on cognitive and mental health of older adults, and minority health disparities.
You can view Y. M. Khoo’s list of published works here.