When it comes to sleeping, America faces a crisis. Estimates show that between 50 and 70 million Americans experience chronic sleep disorders stemming from deficiencies in the quality, timing, and amount of sleep. Chronic sleep disorders can lead to distress, mood swings, and hormonal impairment. If left untreated, this could have a negative effect on quality of life, longevity, and general health.
The good news is that therapy has shown to be useful for many sleep disorders when coupled with other lifestyle changes. In this article, we focus on sleep disorders, the symptoms, causes, and, more importantly, how you can diagnose and treat them.
What are Sleep Disorders?
Sleep disorders are conditions that distort your sleep, leading to sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation means that you are not getting adequate sleep, impairing your ability to function fully when you are awake. It can cause a loss of concentration at work or school, impact your ability to drive safely, and put you at the risk of health issues.
Classifying Sleep Disorders?
According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, the International Classification of Sleep Disorders – Third Edition (ICSD-3) is the “authoritative clinical text for the diagnosis of sleep disorders.” The book classifies sleep disorders into six categories:
- Sleep-Related Breathing Disorders
- Central Disorders Of Hypersomnolence
- Circadian Rhythm Sleep-Wake Disorders
- Sleep-Related Movement Disorders
What are the Symptoms of Sleep Disorders?
Certain signs show an individual that they may have a sleeping disorder. These symptoms differ depending on the disorder, its underlying cause, and how severe it is.
Below are some of the common symptoms:
What are the Causes of Sleep Disorders?
Sleep disorders can be caused by underlying health conditions, lifestyle choices, and the sleeping environment. Most people find it difficult to sleep due to factors like the nature of their work, stress, chronic pain, a frequent need to urinate, or other such factors. Meanwhile, sleeping problems can also be indicators of mental health issues.
Medical conditions can cause sleep disorders, while sleep disorders could result in medical conditions. Ill-health often comes with the discomfort that makes it a challenge to sleep. Added to this, chronic illness can leave individuals feeling stressed when it becomes difficult to sleep.
An article from Harvard Health identifies some common medical conditions that could lead to sleep disorders. These include “heartburn, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal disorders, kidney disease, mental health problems, neurological disorders, respiratory problems, and thyroid disease.”
The same Harvard article identifies mental health disorders and neurological disorders linked to sleep disorders. Mental health disorders include general anxiety, phobias and panic attacks, depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. Included among the most common neurological disorders are dementia, epilepsy, headaches, strokes, tumors, and Parkinson’s disease.
Other factors responsible for sleep disorders are allergies and upper respiratory conditions, which affect breathing during sleep. The inability to breathe via the nose can cause sleeping problems.
Frequent urination may cause you to wake up at night, thus preventing you from getting quality sleep. Suppose you are experiencing constant pain, such as recurring headaches, arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, or lower back pain. In that case, you may find it difficult to stay asleep.
Aside from medical factors, age and lifestyle have also been identified as causes of sleep disorders. For instance, the quality of sleep tends to deteriorate as people grow older, possibly why children seem to sleep better than adults.
Also, people who drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, and drink coffee to stay active tend to experience sleep difficulties. The blue light from standard devices, like mobile phones and computers we use every day, have also been noted to result in sleep problems. This implies that an individual who excessively uses their mobile phone before going to bed may have more challenges falling asleep than one who doesn’t.
While we often focus on medical conditions and lifestyle issues when we look at sleeping disorders, we frequently overlook the sleeping environment. For instance, sleeping in a noisy area where you frequently have to wake up due to fighting or bucking dogs could result in challenges falling asleep.
Your mattress and linen also affect the quality of sleep you get. For example, if you feel too cold because you do not have enough blankets, you may find it a challenge to sleep. The same would happen if you were to sleep in clothes that make you feel uncomfortable.
What are the Common Types of Sleeping Disorders?
Over 100 types of sleep disorders exist. Below are the most common conditions with their symptoms and causes:
Insomnia is a sleep problem where you find it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep. It can be acute (short-term), lasting for a night or a few weeks, or chronic, lasting for a longer time.
The Sleepfoundation.org identifies two types of insomnia: primary insomnia and secondary insomnia. A primary condition means a sleep problem is not a result of an underlying sickness. For a secondary case, your trouble in falling asleep is an outcome of a secondary condition, such as cancer, asthma, depression, arthritis, pain, medication, or use of substances like alcohol or cigarettes.
Primary insomnia can be stress-induced due to significant life events, such as student debt, job loss, divorce, or a friend or family member’s death. Also, noise, light, and temperature can affect your sleep.
A change in your sleep schedule due to a new shift and jet lag (a sleep problem affecting people who have traveled across different time zones) can cause you to experience primary insomnia.
Insomnia symptoms, whether primary or secondary, are fatigue, sleepiness during productive hours, irritability, and a lack of focus or a loss of memory.
Circadian Rhythm Disorder
Naturally, the body has a way of regulating itself to know when to do certain things, including sleeping and waking up. The circadian rhythm can be defined as the internal body clock. When it is no longer able to determine what should happen at certain times accurately, you are suffering from what is called circadian rhythm disorders.
A disorder in your circadian rhythm can lead to falling or staying asleep, waking up before time, and the inability to resume sleep. Also, sleep may not recharge you even though you sleep for the recommended hours for your age.
Common causes of circadian rhythm disorders include pregnancy, medications, menopause, mental health problems, work shift, and time zone changes.
Shift Work Sleep Disorder
People who need to work in the night or very early in the morning usually experience shift work sleep disorder. Your internal clock programs your body to sleep at night and stay active during the day, but the night work shift reverses this circadian rhythm and disrupts the sleep-wake schedule.
A study published in CHEST, the American College of Chest Physicians’ official publication, concluded that over 32% of night shift workers show diagnostic symptoms of shift work disorder. Common symptoms include excessive sleepiness or difficulty sleeping, loss of concentration, headaches, and a lack of energy.
Other Types of Sleep Disorders
Even though there are common sleep disorders that affect the majority of people, there are many more that are less common, including the following:
Parasomnias: Describes different abnormal behaviors before, during, and after sleep. These include night terrors, nightmares, and sleepwalking, among others.
Sleep Apnea: A severe sleep problem where breathing stops and starts repeatedly. Snoring loudly and tiredness are common symptoms of this disorder.
Narcolepsy: Results in individuals sleeping excessively, hallucinating, partially, or completely losing control of their muscles, especially when experiencing strong emotions such as laughter.
Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS): This condition induces an uncontrollable urge in leg movement while lying down or sitting.
How Are Sleep Disorders Diagnosed?
Diagnosing sleeping disorders is a process that employs a variety of details to assess the sleep problem. Most methods will start by collecting comprehensive details about your history in general and your medical history in particular. The information you provide to the sleep specialist will form the foundation of the treatment you get.
Some standard techniques used by sleep specialists to diagnose sleep disorders are listed below:
Polysomnography (PSG): A lab sleep study that verifies how your oxygen level, brain waves, and body movements affect your sleep.
Electroencephalogram (EEG): A test that evaluates your brain’s electrical processes and uncovers the likely issues in these processes.
Multiple Sleep Latency Test (MSLT): A daytime napping study used with PSG at night to diagnose narcolepsy.
How to Assess Your Sleep
If you want to evaluate your sleep, you need to keep a sleep diary to track your sleep patterns and those activities that can affect your sleep. This will help you have sufficient information to answer a sleep specialist’s questions if that is where your problem ends up.
In your sleep diary:
- Track the time you enter bed and wake up.
- Record the number of sleep hours and perceived sleep quality.
- Include a record of the time you spend while you are awake and every activity you perform.
- Include your food intake.
- Take note of your emotions.
- Record all the medications you take, as well as the doses and the time you consume them.
Note: You could also take advantage of many smartphone applications that track sleep.
How are Sleep Disorders Treated?
The type and causes of the disorder always inform the kind of treatment to use. Generally, you can combine medications with lifestyle adjustments to treat most sleep disorders. Examples of medical treatments include sleeping pills, cold and flu medication, melatonin supplements, a dental guard, and breathing devices.
Most importantly, there can be a significant improvement in the quality of sleep with lifestyle changes. You can eat healthy, exercise regularly, establish a regular sleeping schedule, reduce substance intake, and engage in other healthy mental exercises, such as meditation and self-reflection.
If the sleeping disorders result from medical problems, attend to these problems. Deal with the issues that cause stress in your life, and seek help from professionals where you can. Also look at how you can make your sleeping environment as conducive for restful sleep as possible.
When to Consult a Doctor
If your sleep disorder has lasted more than four weeks and is starting to interfere with your daily functioning, it may be time to see a doctor. You should also see a specialist if you begin to feel that a sleeping disorder could be life-threatening. An example is when you find yourself waking up in the middle of the night suffocating because you cannot breathe.