What Are Sleep Disorders?
Sleep disorders are conditions that affect how much and how well you sleep. The causes range from poor habits that keep you awake to medical problems that disrupt your sleep cycle. If you don’t feel rested in the mornings, see your doctor. Insufficient sleep is a serious problem that poses a threat to your health and safety.
Symptoms of Sleep Disorders
Symptoms vary depending on the type of sleep disorder but may include:
- Excessive sleepiness during the day
- Trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
- Snoring or brief pauses in breathing during sleep
- Urge to move your legs at rest or an uncomfortable feeling in the legs at night
The Sleep Cycle
There are two forms of sleep: REM sleep and non-REM sleep. REM stands for rapid eye movement and is associated with dreaming. It accounts for 25% of normal sleep, coming in longer periods toward morning. The rest of our sleep time is spent in NREM, which consists of four stages from light sleep (stage 1) to deep sleep (stage 4). Sleep disorders interfere with normal sleep cycles, preventing a good night’s rest.
How Much Sleep Is Enough?
Sleep needs vary widely from person to person, but general guidelines are:
- 16 hours for infants
- 9 hours for teenagers
- 7-8 hours for adults
Keep in mind that some adults do fine with 5 hours of sleep and others need as many as 10 hours per night.
Most people have trouble sleeping once in awhile, but when the problem lingers night after night you may have insomnia. People with insomnia may lie awake for hours before falling asleep. They may wake up too early and be unable to drift off again. Or they may wake up repeatedly throughout the night.
Insomnia and Medical Conditions
Insomnia is often related to medical problems, including:
- Chronic pain
- Heart failure (due to breathing problems)
- Thyroid problems
- Neurological disorders, such as stroke, Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s
Narcolepsy causes extreme sleepiness during the day. People may find it hard to function without naps, despite spending enough time in bed at night. Other warning signs include:
- Being unable to move when you first wake
- Losing muscle control with strong emotions
- Dreaming during naps
- Dream-like hallucinations as you fall asleep or wake up
People with narcolepsy enter REM sleep almost immediately, without the NREM sleep stages that normally lead up to dream sleep.
People with this sleep problem can literally get up and walk while they are sleeping. The episodes occur during the deeper stages of NREM sleep, and the person may do a variety of activities without waking up. Sleepwalkers typically don’t respond to questions and won’t remember what they did once they wake up. Sleepwalking is most common in children but can last into adulthood.
When to Call the Doctor
There are steps you can take to fight sleep disorders on your own, but some situations require medical attention. Call your doctor if you snore loudly or gasp during sleep, if you think a medical condition or medication is keeping you up at night, if you’re tired all the time or if you fall asleep during daytime activities.
Charting your habits for 1-2 weeks can provide valuable information. Include:
- When you go to bed, fall asleep, and wake
- How long and well you slept
- Time awake during the night
- Caffeine or alcohol consumed and when
- What/when you ate and drank
- Emotion or stress
- Drugs or medications
Diagnosing Sleep Disorders
To diagnose a sleep disorder, your doctor will ask about your sleep habits and medical conditions. Next, you may be referred to a sleep clinic for testing. A polysomnogram, also called a sleep study, records brain activity, eye movements, and breathing while you sleep. These patterns can indicate a disorder like sleep apnea or a less common type. Research has identified more than 85 sleep problems, including sleep terrors, REM sleep behavior disorder, and sleep starts.
Treating Sleep Disorders
For sleep apnea, a CPAP device increases air pressure to keep airways open so you can rest more soundly without the breathing pauses that interrupt sleep. Narcolepsy and restless legs syndrome can be treated with lifestyle changes and prescription medication. There are also effective medications for insomnia. However, many people can beat insomnia without medication by changing poor sleep habits and taking care of related conditions.
Sleep Hygiene: Exercise
Adopting habits that promote sleep is known as good sleep hygiene. Regular exercise should be part of the plan, but the timing is important. Exercise in the late afternoon can make it easier to fall and stay asleep – just don’t let it get too late. Exercise within a couple hours of bedtime can make it harder to fall asleep.
Sleep Hygiene: Problem Foods
Certain foods and drinks should be avoided in the 4-6 hours before bed:
- Caffeine, including coffee, tea, and soda
- Heavy or spicy foods
- Alcohol (While alcohol helps some people fall asleep, it leads to nighttime awakenings.)
Sleep Hygiene: Helpful Foods
A light evening snack of complex carbs and protein can lead to better sleep. Cereal with milk or crackers and cheese fit the bill, but they should be eaten at least an hour before bed. Warm milk and chamomile tea raise body temperature and make many people feel sleepy.
Sleep Hygiene: Television
Late-night television may be part of your routine, but chances are it is not helping you sleep. Television engages the mind and can increase alertness, keeping you awake. Playing video games before bed or surfing the Internet may have the same effect. The National Sleep Foundation recommends removing televisions and computers from your bedroom altogether.
source: Web MD