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Causes of Excessive Sleepiness: Sleep Apnea, Narcolepsy, RLS

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Do you struggle to stay awake during work and other activities and you don't know why? Could sleep apnea or another medical condition be the main culprit?

Sometimes the cause of sleepiness isn't easy to figure out. Here is information that can point you in the right direction and help you find the treatment that works best for you.

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What Is Excessive Sleepiness?

Sleepiness is likely a problem for you if:

  • You have trouble waking in the morning
  • You often feel sleepy during your waking hours
  • Naps don’t take the edge off your sleepiness

Along with having to drag yourself through the day, you may also have:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Trouble with thinking or memory
  • Feelings of irritability or anxiety

About 20% of adults have sleepiness severe enough to affect their regular activities.

Conditions That Can Cause Sleepiness

Not getting enough sleep -- sometimes by choice -- is the most common cause of excessive sleepiness. Working at night and sleeping during the day is another. Other causes include drug, alcohol, or cigarette use, lack of physical activity, obesity, and the use of certain medications.

But nodding off when you want or need to be awake may also be caused by an underlying condition. Depression or a sleep disorder -- such as restless legs syndrome, sleep apnea, or narcolepsy -- are common causes of problem sleepiness.

Restless Legs Syndrome and Sleepiness

Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is a disorder characterized by unpleasant sensations in the legs and a strong urge to move them. RLS may also cause jerky leg movements every 20 to 30 seconds throughout the night. Sometimes RLS can affect other parts of the body, too.

RLS symptoms may occur or get worse while you’re at rest or sleeping. Because the symptoms are usually worse at night, they can greatly interrupt your sleep and lead to sleepiness when you need to be awake. RLS can be so bad, it is mistaken for insomnia.

Treatment for Restless Legs Syndrome

Moving your legs lessens RLS symptoms. These steps may also be enough to relieve symptoms of RLS:

  • Take iron or vitamin B12 or folate supplements if your doctor says your levels are low and recommends them.
  • Talk to your doctor about whether a medication or herbal remedy that you’re taking may be making symptoms worse. These could include medication that treats high blood pressure, nausea, colds, allergies, heart conditions, or depression.
  • Stay away from alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine.
  • Maintain a healthy diet, exercise regularly, and try relaxation techniques such as hot baths and massage.
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