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Trouble sleeping is a common problem throughout the world. Whether you’re lying in bed unable to get to sleep or waking up only to stare at your clock for the hour before it’s set to go off, you know the struggle of keeping your energy up through the next day.
Of course, a bad night of sleep from time to time is normal—everyone experiences those. However, it’s when those bad nights add up consistently that you may have a sleep disorder.
There is a wide range of sleep disorders, and there are treatment options to help manage each of them.
What are sleep disorders?
Sleep disorders are conditions that affect the quantity and quality of your sleep. Research has found that around 41% of young adults and up to 50% of older adults have at least one type of sleep disorder (McArdle, 2020, Karna, 2021).
There are many different types of sleep disorders. They are often grouped based on how they affect you, including (McArdle, 2020):
- Breathing difficulties
- Problems falling asleep
- Frequently waking up or waking up too early
- Daytime drowsiness
- Muscle discomfort or movements while asleep or attempting to sleep
Symptoms of sleep disorders
The symptoms of sleep disorders vary based on the type of sleep problem. Some conditions have symptoms unique to that sleep disorder. Still, there are common symptoms of sleep disturbances including (Karna, 2021):
- Excessive daytime sleepiness
- Trouble falling or staying asleep
- Poor memory or forgetfulness
- Low sleep quality
- Clumsiness or poor coordination during the day
Falling asleep at inappropriate times, pauses in breathing, the urge to move while trying to fall asleep, and other symptoms can occur with some types of sleep disorders.
Sleep deprivation: symptoms, effects, stages
Effects of having a sleep disorder
Sleep disorders and a lack of sleep can affect every area of your life. While sleeping, the body repairs muscle and other tissues, regulates your metabolism and hormones, and creates pathways in your brain to reinforce memories and learning (Zielinski, 2016).
Good sleep is essential for your overall health and wellbeing. Some of the ways having a sleep disorder can impact your quality of life include (Karna, 2021; Zielinski, 2016):
- Problems at work or school: A sleep disorder can decrease your alertness and focus, increasing forgetfulness. These symptoms can make work or school more difficult. Sometimes people with sleep disorders are wrongly perceived as lazy because they may have trouble staying awake during the day.
- Low motivation: A lack of energy can decrease your motivation to complete tasks and accomplish goals throughout the day.
- Muscle fatigue: While sleeping, your muscle and tissues recover from use and repair any damage from exercise. Sleep deprivation or poor sleep quality can leave your muscles feeling weaker.
- Weaker immune system: During sleep, your body clears out waste and regulates hormones. A lack of sleep impacts your body’s response to disease and weakens your immune system.
- Increased risk for mental illness: Research shows that sleep disturbances may increase your risk for mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety (Okun, 2018).
Types of sleep disorders
There are eight types of sleep disorders that are the most common.
Insomnia causes trouble falling or staying asleep. It can take longer than 30 minutes for people with insomnia to fall asleep after getting into bed. Some will spend longer than 30 minutes awake in the middle of the night (Karna, 2021).
Chronic insomnia can interfere with your ability to function normally in daily life. Often, people with insomnia experience daytime sleepiness, poor attention, frequent accidents, feeling agitated, and lack of motivation. People with insomnia may experience symptoms regularly, or the symptoms may occur more often with illness, mental health conditions, or extra stress (Karna, 2021).
Insomnia: what is it, symptoms, causes, treatments
This sleep disorder is more common in young adults and adolescents. It is excess daytime sleepiness causing trouble concentrating and focusing during the day. People with hypersomnia may fall asleep accidentally, potentially at times that interrupt their daily lives (Karna, 2021).
Narcolepsy is a neurological disorder where the brain’s ability to control sleep is disrupted. People with narcolepsy experience symptoms like (Karna, 2021):
- Chronic daytime fatigue
- Hallucinations while falling asleep or while waking up
- Sleep paralysis (inability to move immediately after waking)
- Falling asleep at inappropriate times, like when driving
Often people with narcolepsy also have symptoms of cataplexy. Cataplexy is the loss of muscle control while experiencing intense emotions, such as laughter or anger, sometimes making the person collapse as a result (Karna, 2021).
4. Sleep apnea
Sleep apnea is a breathing disorder that causes a person to briefly stop breathing while sleeping.
In obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), the muscles around the throat relax and temporarily obstruct the airway. Central sleep apnea is caused by miscommunication between the brain and respiratory muscles leading to pauses in breath.
People with sleep apnea may experience (Karna, 2021):
- Excessive daytime sleepiness
- Morning headaches
- Loud snoring
- Gasping or choking sounds while sleeping
- Poor sleep quality
- Trouble concentrating and poor judgment
- Higher risk for depression
5. Circadian rhythm disorders
Your circadian rhythm controls your sleep-wake cycle. The circadian rhythm is commonly called your “internal clock” and usually works on a 24-hour cycle. Light exposure and the change from day to night greatly influences sleep cycles. Circadian rhythm disorders happen when the body clock becomes off, leading to sleeping problems.
The common types of circadian rhythm disorders include (Karna, 2021):
- Advanced sleep phase syndrome is the inability to stay awake in the evening and waking up in the early morning. Typically people with this disorder struggle to stay awake past 7 pm.
- Delayed sleep phase syndrome happens when someone is unable to fall asleep at their desired time and experiences excessive tiredness in the morning. People with this disorder often sleep late into the morning and have difficulty waking up with their alarm.
- Jetlag disorder is caused by traveling two or more time zones away. The sudden change in light exposure and internal cues causes trouble sleeping and difficulty staying awake.
- Shift work disorder occurs in night shift or rotating shift workers. The changes in work schedule or lack of exposure to daylight can disrupt their sleep-wake cycle, causing fatigue and trouble sleeping.
Unusual experiences or behaviors during sleep are called parasomnias. For example, sleepwalking, sleep paralysis, sleep terrors, and nightmares are types of parasomnias. While sleeping, people may walk, talk, kick, yell, cry, eat, and any other action. Sometimes people disturb their bed partner by hitting or kicking them during episodes (Karna, 2021).
7. Night terrors and nightmares
Night terrors are more common in young children between the ages of two and 12. They typically go away as the child ages. Nightmares are commonly known as bad dreams. During nightmares and night terrors, people may scream, yell, experience intense fear, and flail their arms and legs.
During night terrors, the person can’t be woken up, and they have no memory of the event. However, with nightmares, they can be woken up, and they can usually remember the nightmare (Karna, 2021).
8. Restless legs syndrome
Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is a sleep movement disorder causing uncomfortable feelings and the urge to move your legs while trying to fall asleep. It is more common in older adults. The symptoms can be relieved temporarily by walking or moving around (Karna, 2021).
Causes of sleep disorders
Multiple factors can cause or increase the risk for sleep disorders, including (Karna, 2021):
- Using electronics and blue light exposure at night
- Caffeine intake
- Alcohol, nicotine, and other substance use
- A family history of sleep disorders
- Poor sleep hygiene
- Medications, such as antidepressants and steroids
- Medical conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke, thyroid disease, GERD, and asthma
- Mental health conditions, such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorders, and panic attacks
- Lifestyle—a sedentary lifestyle, obesity, daytime napping, and poor diet could impact sleep quality
Diagnosing sleep disorders
Your healthcare provider will evaluate the history of your symptoms along with your past medical history, medications, and lifestyles when diagnosing sleep disorders.
Some of the tools and tests used to diagnose sleep disorders include (Karna, 2021):
- Sleep diary: You may be asked to keep a sleep log for a few weeks to record sleep-wake times, quality of sleep, amount of sleep, and any sleep problems.
- Sleep study: A sleep study is usually done in a lab where a healthcare provider is able to monitor your oxygen levels, brain activity, and behaviors.
- Actigraphy: You may be asked to wear a device on your wrist that detects movement while you sleep. Over a few days to weeks, the device will monitor your circadian rhythm and sleep quality.
- Questionnaires: Your healthcare provider may ask you to complete short surveys to assess sleepiness or depression risk.
Sleep disorder treatment
Depending on the type of sleep disorder you have, your healthcare provider will likely recommend a combination of medical treatment options and lifestyle changes.
Bright light therapy
Bright light therapy is a type of therapy used to treat some sleep disorders. Looking at a lightbox designed to mimic sunlight causes changes in the brain to help treat some sleep disturbances. This type of treatment is particularly effective for circadian rhythm disorders, insomnia, and hypersomnia (Maanen, 2016).
Managing medical and mental health conditions
Staying healthy is essential for your sleep quality and treating sleep disorders. Medical conditions like diabetes and heart disease and mental disorders like anxiety and depression increase your risk for sleep disturbances (Karna, 2021).
Talk with your healthcare provider about improving the symptoms of any health conditions you have to help treat sleep disturbances.
Healthy sleep habits, called your sleep hygiene, help you consistently get better sleep. Tips to get a good night’s sleep include (Karna, 2021):
- Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, even on days off
- Avoiding watching television, looking at your phone, or reading in bed
- Exercising regularly
- Avoiding caffeine in the afternoon and evening
- Keeping your bedroom cool, dark, and quiet
Sleep medicines can help you to fall asleep more quickly. Talk with your healthcare provider about when options are best for you. They may recommend prescription sleep aids and sedatives to help you fall and stay asleep.
Melatonin also helps some people fall asleep. It is a hormone that regulates the sleep-wake cycle. Melatonin was made into a dietary supplement and can help treat sleep problems (Dodson, 2021). Speak with your healthcare provider before adding in any supplements or medications to ensure that they won’t interact with any other medications or health conditions you may have.
Continuous positive airway pressure machine
A continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine is used to treat sleep apnea. CPAPs create pressure to keep a steady flow of oxygen and prevent pauses while breathing. A CPAP can help improve sleep quality and reduce the risk of complications from sleep apnea.
Preventing sleep disorders
Not all sleep disorders can be prevented. Still, there are some changes you can make to help lower the risk of them developing. Changes in your lifestyle and practicing good habits can help you get enough sleep. Try to exercise regularly, follow a healthy diet, manage your stress levels using relaxation techniques, and follow a regular sleep schedule.
If you’re having problems sleeping at night or staying alert during the day, talk with your healthcare provider to better understand your symptoms and develop a treatment plan to help you get the sleep you need.
- Dodson, E. R., & Zee, P. C. (2010). Therapeutics for circadian rhythm sleep disorders. Sleep medicine clinics, 5(4), 701–715. doi: 10.1016/j.jsmc.2010.08.001. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3020104/
- Karna B, Gupta V. (2021). Sleep disorder. [Updated 2021 Feb 6]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan-. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK560720/
- McArdle, N., Ward, S. V., Bucks, R. S., Maddison, K., Smith, A., Huang, R. C., et al. (2020). The prevalence of common sleep disorders in young adults: a descriptive population-based study. Sleep, 43(10), zsaa072. doi: 10.1093/sleep/zsaa072. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32280974/
- Maanen, AV., Meijer, A. M., van der Heijden, K. B., & Oort, F. J. (2016). The effects of light therapy on sleep problems: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Sleep medicine reviews, 29, 52–62. doi: 10.1016/j.smrv.2015.08.009. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26606319/
- Okun, M. L., Mancuso, R. A., Hobel, C. J., Schetter, C. D., & Coussons-Read, M. (2018). Poor sleep quality increases symptoms of depression and anxiety in postpartum women. Journal of behavioral medicine, 41(5), 703–710. doi: 10.1007/s10865-018-9950-7. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30030650/
- Zielinski, M. R., McKenna, J. T., & McCarley, R. W. (2016). Functions and mechanisms of sleep. AIMS neuroscience, 3(1), 67–104. doi: 10.3934/Neuroscience.2016.1.67. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5390528/
Dr. Steve Silvestro is a board-certified pediatrician and Senior Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.