Sleep and health go hand-in hand, with insufficient sleep being associated with chronic diseases, depression, motor vehicle accidents and occupational accidents. It is important to understand and be aware of the causes and symptoms of sleep disorders.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 50 to 70 million American adults have sleep or wakefulness disorders. Sleep plays an important role in our overall well-being. Getting the right amount of sleep and good quality sleep helps protect both our physical and mental health.
Studies show that during sleep our brain is forming new pathways to help us process, learn and remember. When we have had a good night’s sleep we are able to pay attention, make decisions and be creative. The opposite occurs when we experience one or more type of sleep disorder. With sleep disorders we have more trouble making decisions and solving problems. We also find it more challenging to control our emotions and behaviour. Coping with change can be really hard, too.
From a physical point of view, sleep heals and repairs our heart and blood vessels. Chronic sleep disorders have been linked to an increased risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, diabetes and stroke. There is no denying that sleep disorders affect health, which is why it is important to learn the different types and how they can be treated.
The different types of sleep disorders
When you hear the term “sleep disorders” you likely think of insomnia; however, there are actually over 100 different types of sleep disorders, all of which disrupt people from having the kind of rest necessary to restore the body.
Here is a look at some of the most common types of sleep disorders that Americans suffer from.
We all have them from time-to-time, but some people have them regularly. They can involve immediate awakening, and in some cases, especially for children, it can be difficult to get back to sleep.
This sleep disorder occurs when people act out their dreams. They move their limbs or may even get up out of bed. Some talk, shout, sing, hit or punch others.
- Non-24-hour sleep wake disorder
People who are diagnosed with this have cyclic insomnia and/or daytime sleepiness. The problem appears to be related to the lack of synchronicity between the 24-hour day-night cycle and the internal body clock. This is referred to as a circadian rhythms disorder. Circadian rhythms are what regulate our natural sleep and wake patterns.
- Shift work disorder
Many of us know or have even experienced this – our body clock getting mixed up due to changes in our shifts at work. Switching from sleeping at night to sleeping during the day can be difficult. This is also a circadian rhythm disorder.
- Excessive daytime sleep disorders
This group of disorders includes narcolepsy, which is a neurological disorder caused by the brain’s inability to regulate sleep-wake cycles, as well as obstructive sleep apnea which causes breathing to be briefly and repeatedly interrupted during sleep. Extreme sleepiness during the day can occur for other reasons aside from narcolepsy and sleep apnea.
This is considered a sleep disorder because for some people it can cause fragmented sleep, thus causing sleepiness during the daytime.
How sleep disorders affect your health
Over the last decade a lot of research has been conducted on the impact of sleeplessness, and while some are considered observational, few medical experts will deny that sleep disorders affect health.
The Institute of Medicine (U.S.) Committee on Sleep Medicine and Research analyzed a number of sleep studies a few years back and concluded that sleep disorders were a real “public health” problem. They indicated that less than seven hours of sleep per night could have wide-ranging effects on the cardiovascular, immune, nervous and endocrine systems. Here are some problems they have been able to link to lack of sleep:
- Diabetes and impaired glucose tolerance
- Cardiovascular disease and hypertension
- Alcohol use
Although studies have looked at all aspects of sleep and health, a great deal of data has been collected in relation to sleep and weight. One study showed that by age 27 people with less than six hours of sleep were 7.5 times more likely to have a higher body mass index (BMI) than those who got much better sleep. Family history, diet and levels of physical activity were taken into consideration.
Sleep disorders don’t just impact the people who are having trouble sleeping. For example, lack of sleep could lead to an innocent person being killed in a car accident, if a sleep deprived person gets behind the wheel. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that each year drowsy drivers are responsible for about 100,000 automobile accidents, 70,000 injuries and 1,550 fatalities.
Poor quality sleep can result in a poor quality of life. Psychologists report that many people who suffer from sleep disorders are unable to participate in physical activities or maintain their attention, such as watching a movie or seeing their child play in a soccer game.
Symptoms of sleep disorders and how to spot them
It would be hard to find anyone who has not had trouble sleeping at some point in their life, but chronic sleep problems and constant sleepiness during the day could mean you have a sleep disorder. Because we live in such a fast-paced society – where we are rushing to meet personal goals and demands from others – we can miss the early symptoms of sleep disorders.
The following are some of the signs that mean you could have a sleep disorder.
- Constantly taking more than 30 minutes to fall asleep
- Having to take frequent naps during the day
- Waking up in the middle of the night and remaining awake for hours
- Fatigue and irritability during the day
- Difficulty concentrating at work or school
- Falling asleep at inappropriate times, including when sitting up
- Loud snoring, breathing and/or gasping noises while sleeping
- Waking up too early
- Needing a stimulant like coffee to keep you awake during the day
- The urge to move your legs or tingling and crawling feeling in legs at bedtime.
- You have mysterious symptoms such as constant pain that keeps you awake
- If you nod off during everyday activities like driving or reading
If you think you have any of the symptoms of sleep disorders listed above, you should speak to your doctor immediately. Some sleep experts say the sooner the problem is addressed, the easier it is to resolve and the less damage there will be to your health.
Causes of sleep disorders
There is not always an easy solution to problems surrounding sleep. There are a number of causes of sleep disorders; medical conditions, including fibromyalgia, low thyroid function, and joint problems like arthritis can cause sleeplessness. Mononucleosis or other viral illnesses also disturb sleep. As outlined above, sleep disorders such as narcolepsy, sleep apnea and REM behaviour disorder can also cause the problem. When no cause for sleeplessness can be determined, it is called “idiopathic hypersomnia.”
For some people, sleeplessness can happen simply because they do not stick to a regular sleep schedule. This is the case with people who work shift work and those who travel between time zones.
Stress is one of the biggest causes of sleep disorders. According to the National Sleep Foundation, stress causes hyperarousal. This can upset the balance between sleep and being awake. However, this doesn’t mean that everyone with a high level of stress suffers from insomnia.
How to prevent sleep disorders
While having difficulty sleeping can be frustrating, there is light at the end of the tunnel, or should we say, there is dark at the end of the day so you can get some shut-eye. Thinking about your sleep habits can help to prevent sleep disorders. The list below offers some tried and true suggestions for people who suffer from sleep disorders and are looking for relief.
- Try to go to sleep at the same time each night and get up at the same time each morning.
- Don’t take naps during the day since they make you less tired at night.
- Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine late in the day.
- Don’t eat heavy meals late in the evening.
- Get regular exercise, but not close to bedtime since it will stimulate you and make it difficult to fall asleep.
- Avoid using your bed for anything other than sleep or sex.
- If you can’t sleep, get up and do something that is not too stimulating, such as reading until you do feel sleepy.
- When you are worrying, try to make a to-do list before you go to bed. This just might help you to avoid thinking about those worries overnight.
- Consider taking a warm bath just before getting into bed.
Whatever you do before going to bed, research suggests that it should be a somewhat serene activity. A National Sleep Foundation survey indicated that the majority of Americans used some type of electronics, such a computer, cell phone, video game or television, within the last hour before going to bed. This is considered a bad idea because the light from these electronics stimulates the brain too much, making it harder to wind down.
Natural remedies to help you sleep
There are a number of over-the-counter sleep aids on the market, but many have side effects, including hangovers – that groggy feeling the next day. Much is unknown about the safety of over-the-counter sleep aids, and we have to keep in mind that medication interactions are possible as well. On the plus side, there are a lot of natural remedies for sleep.
Some people can prevent sleep disorders simply through exercise and diet. Having a regular exercise routine that balances your energy has proved positive for sleep, while eating foods that contain tryptophan, an amino acid that’s used to make serotonin can also help us sleep. Serotonin does occur naturally in the brain. Bananas, chicken and turkey contain tryptophan. This is the reason many people joke about taking a nap after consuming turkey. Carbohydrates help tryptophan enter the brain, so try a glass of warm milk at bedtime.
There are other natural remedies to help you sleep, including valerian, which binds to the same receptors in the brain that tranquilizers do, passionflower, which is used as a mild sedative, and lavender, which has an aroma enabling people to fall asleep.
Sleep surveys show that the sleep deprived have benefited from taking warm baths. Now sleep experts believe that putting a few drops of lavender oil or jasmine oil in a bath before bed is beneficial. Studies conducted at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia demonstrated that people who spent the night in a jasmine-scented room slept better than people who stayed in unscented rooms.
Studies have also suggested that magnesium and calcium are both sleep boosters. Magnesium is very important to the human body, helping to regulate muscle and nerve function. Calcium is required for muscle function, nerve transmission and hormonal secretion.
When sleep disorders can be linked to stress, often times the best approach is yoga, which could end up relaxing your body and mind, or simple meditation, which can have the same impact.
We all need about seven to nine hours of sleep each night. For some people this is not a tall order, but for those who suffer from sleep disorders, sleep can be an elusive and all-consuming task. It can impact work, relationships, physical health and mental well-being.
While some people fall asleep in 10 seconds, others can take hours or suffer from insomnia, staying awake for days, weeks or months. The good news is that those who do suffer from sleep disorders have two options: they can either control the problem themselves, as in the case of stress, or they can seek help when they notice the first signs of a problem. Either way, the human body knows when it needs to rest sleep is essential.
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