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What Are Sleep Disorders?

These conditions affect how much and how well you sleep. 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. Not getting enough shuteye is a serious problem that can threaten your health and safety.

The Dangers of Not Getting Enough ZZZs

Lack of sleep can take a toll on nearly every part of your life. Research links sleep deprivation to car accidents, relationship troubles, poor job performance, job-related injuries, memory problems, and mood disorders. Recent studies also suggest sleep disorders may contribute to heart disease, obesity, and diabetes.

Symptoms of a Sleep Disorder

Symptoms depend on the type you have, but you might:

  • Feel very sleepy during the day
  • Have trouble falling or staying asleep
  • Snore
  • Stop breathing briefly and often while asleep (apnea)
  • Have uncomfortable feelings in your legs and the urge to move them (restless legs syndrome)

The Sleep Cycle

There are two forms of sleep: REM and NREM. You dream during REM (rapid eye movement). It takes up 25% of your slumber, stretching into longer periods in the morning. The rest is spent in NREM, which has four stages from light (1) to deep (4). Sleep disorders mess with your normal cycle and keep you from getting a good night’s rest.

How Much Shuteye Do You Need?

Needs vary from person to person, but the 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, while others need as many as 10.

 

Insomnia

It’s normal to have trouble sleeping once in a while, but when the problem lingers night after night, you have insomnia. Do you lie awake for hours? Do you wake up too early and not able to drift off again? Do you wake up repeatedly throughout the night? Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder in the U.S., affecting a third of adults at some point in their lives.

Insomnia and Sleep Hygiene

In many cases, insomnia is related to bad habits before bed. Do you drink coffee in the afternoon or evening? Do you smoke or eat heavy foods at night? Do you go to bed at a different time each night? Do you fall asleep with the television on?

Insomnia and Mental Health

Mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder can also cause insomnia. Unfortunately, some of the medications used to treat these conditions can also cause sleep problems. If you think you’re losing ZZZs and your medication is to blame, talk to your doctor about adjusting your treatment.

Insomnia and Medical Conditions

Trouble sleeping is often linked to health problems such as:

  • Arthritis
  • Heartburn
  • Chronic pain
  • Asthma
  • COPD
  • Heart failure
  • Thyroid problems
  • Neurological disorders such as stroke, Alzheimer's, or Parkinson's

Other Causes

Pregnancy is another reason for insomnia, especially in the first and third trimesters. Menopause is, too, as hot flashes are uncomfortable. Both men and women tend to have sleep problems after 65. And shift workers and frequent flyers can get a circadian rhythm disorder. This means their “internal body clock” is out of whack.

Sleep Apnea

This means your breathing stops and starts over and over while you’re sleeping. The pauses last several seconds and trigger a switch from deep to light sleep. Apnea can make you very sleepy during the day. You might not even know you have it. But your spouse or partner can certainly tell you about your snores, snorts, and gasps.

Who’s More Likely to Have Sleep Apnea?

It’s most common in overweight men over 65. Hispanics, African-Americans, and Pacific Islanders also have a higher chance of getting it. Young children with enlarged tonsils can also have it.

Restless Legs Syndrome

Do you have an irresistible urge to move your legs? Do you have uncomfortable feelings in them, like a throb or tingle? Many describe it as pins and needles or a creepy-crawly sensation. It gets worse at night, which makes it tough to catch some winks. And you might have twitches that wake you up.

Narcolepsy

Do you find it hard to get through the day without naps, even after a good night’s rest? With narcolepsy, you can’t control it and suddenly fall asleep. Other warning signs include:

  • Loss of muscle control with strong emotions
  • Dream-like hallucinations as you fall asleep or wake up
  • Dreams during naps

When you wake up, you might also feel like you can’t move. These things happen because you enter REM sleep so fast and skip the normal NREM stages.

Sleepwalking

Do you get out of bed and wander around at night without knowing it? Do people tell you the next morning about your crazy adventures, things you don’t remember? Sleepwalking happens when you’re moving from a deep stage to a lighter one. It’s most common in children between the ages of 4 and 8, but it can happen to anyone.

Sleep Diary

If you think you have a sleep disorder, tell your doctor. He might ask you to write down your habits for 1-2 weeks. Include:

  • What time you got in and out of bed
  • How long and how well you slept
  • The amount of time you laid awake
  • What you ate/drank (especially caffeine and alcohol) and when
  • Your emotions and stress level
  • A list of drugs you take

How to Get a Diagnosis

Once your doctor looks at your habits and your health, he might refer you to a sleep clinic for testing. A polysomnogram, or sleep study, records your brain activity, eye movements, and breathing. These patterns can point to 85 different possibilities, from night terrors to shift work sleep disorder.

Treatment

For sleep apnea, a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine keeps airways open so you can rest soundly. You can treat narcolepsy and restless legs syndrome with lifestyle changes and prescription medication. And there are drugs for insomnia, although good sleep habits can work just as well.

Therapy

Anxiety makes insomnia worse, but cognitive-behavioral therapy can help ease your worries. Relaxation training and biofeedback calm your breathing, heart rate, muscles, and mood. Talk therapy can also quiet your mind.

Good Sleep Habit: Exercise

You can do several things to prep for bedtime, and a regular workout should be a part of your plan. It’s easier to fall and stay asleep when your body’s tired. Exercise in the late afternoon though. Working up a sweat just hours before bedtime can have the opposite effect and keep you up.

Good Sleep Habit: Avoid Problem Foods

Some foods and drinks can be the stuff of nightmares. Avoid these 4-6 hours before bed:

  • Caffeine, including coffee, tea, and soda
  • Heavy or spicy foods
  • Alcohol (it helps some people fall asleep, but it can also make them wake up over and over again)

 

Good Sleep Habit: Helpful Foods

Try a light evening snack that’s high in carbs and easy to digest. A small bowl of cereal with milk or a small muffin fit the bill, but eat them at least an hour before calling it a day. Warm milk and chamomile tea raise your body temperature and can make you sleepy, too.

Good Sleep Habit: Turn Off the Tube

Is late-night TV part of your routine? Sure, it’s entertaining, but it also keeps you awake and alert. Playing video games and surfing the Internet can have the same effect. The National Sleep Foundation suggests that you remove televisions and computers from your bedroom.

Good Sleep Habit: Bedtime Rituals

Tell your mind and body that it's time to catch some ZZZs with a bedtime ritual. This can include a warm bath, a book, or relaxation techniques such as deep breathing. It's also important to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, even on the weekends. If you still have trouble sleeping, talk to your doctor.

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Reviewed by Neil Lava, MD on April 21, 2015