Excessive sleepiness is the feeling of being especially tired or drowsy during the day. Unlike fatigue, which is more about low energy, excessive sleepiness can make you feel so tired that it interferes with school, work, and possibly even your relationships and day-to-day functioning.
Excessive sleepiness affects an estimated 18 percent of the population. It’s not considered an actual condition, but it is a symptom of another problem.
The key to overcoming excessive sleepiness is to determine its cause. There are several sleep-related problems that can leave you yawning the day away.
What causes excessive sleepiness?
Any condition that keeps you from getting good quality sleep at night can cause excessive sleepiness during the day. Daytime sleepiness may be the only symptom you know. Other signs, such as snoring or kicking, may be occurring while you’re asleep.
For many people with sleep disorders, it’s a bed partner who observes other key symptoms. Regardless of the cause, it’s important to have your sleep condition evaluated if daytime sleepiness is keeping you from making the most of your day.
Among the more common causes of excessive sleepiness are:
Sleep apnea is a potentially serious condition in which you repeatedly stop and start breathing throughout the night. It can leave you feeling sleepy during the day.
Sleep apnea also has several other symptoms. Some of them include:
- loud snoring and gasping for air while sleeping
- awaking with a sore throat and a headache
- attention problems
There are actually two main types of sleep apnea. They can all cause excessive sleepiness, because they all keep you from getting enough deep sleep during the night. The types of sleep apnea are:
- Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). This occurs when the tissue in the back of the throat relaxes while you sleep and partially covers your airway.
- Central sleep apnea (CSA). This happens when the brain doesn’t send the right nerve signals to the muscles that control your breathing while you sleep.
Restless legs syndrome
Restless legs syndrome (RLS) causes an irresistible and uncomfortable urge to move your legs. You may be lying down peacefully when you start to feel a throbbing or itching sensation in your legs that only gets better when you get up and walk. RLS makes it difficult to fall asleep, resulting in excessive sleepiness the next day.
It’s not clear what causes RLS, though it may affect up to 10 percent of the population. There may be a genetic component. Other research suggests low iron may be to blame. Many scientists also believe that problems with the brain’s basal ganglia, the region responsible for movement, are at the root of RLS.
Narcolepsy is an often-misunderstood sleep problem. Like RLS, it’s a neurological disorder. With narcolepsy, the brain doesn’t regulate the sleep-wake cycle properly. You may sleep fine through the night if you have narcolepsy. But periodically throughout the day, you may feel excessive sleepiness. You may even fall asleep in the middle of a conversation or during a meal.
Narcolepsy is fairly uncommon, probably affecting less than 200,000 people in the United States. It’s often misdiagnosed as a psychiatric disorder or some other health problem. Anyone can have narcolepsy, though it usually develops in people between the ages of 7 and 25.
A noticeable change in your sleep schedule is one of the more common symptoms of depression. You may sleep much more or much less than you used to, if you have depression. If you aren’t sleeping well at night, you’re likely to experience excessive sleepiness during the day. Sometimes sleep changes are an early sign of depression. For other people, changes in your sleeping habits occur after other signs appear.
Depression has many potential causes, including abnormal levels of certain brain chemicals, problems with the regions of the brain that control mood, or traumatic events that make it difficult to obtain a brighter outlook.
Medication side effects
Some medications cause drowsiness as a side effect. Medications that commonly include excessive sleepiness include:
- some medications that treat high blood pressure
- drugs that treat nasal congestion (antihistamines)
- drugs that treat nausea and vomiting (antiemetics)
- epilepsy medications
- drugs that treat anxiety
If you think your prescription medication is making you sleepy, talk to your doctor before you stop taking it.
Studies have shown that older people spend the most time in bed but get the lowest quality of sleep. According to the study, sleep quality starts to get worse in middle-aged adults. As we age, we experience less time in the deeper types of sleep, and wake up more in the middle of the night.
How is excessive sleepiness treated?
The treatment options for excessive sleepiness vary greatly, depending on the cause.
One of the most common treatments is continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP). This therapy employs a small bedside machine that pumps air through a flexible hose to a mask worn over your nose and mouth.
Newer versions of CPAP machines have smaller, more comfortable masks. Some people complain that CPAP is too loud or uncomfortable, but it remains the most effective OSA treatment available. It’s typically the first treatment a doctor will suggest for CSA.
Restless legs syndrome
RLS can sometimes be controlled with lifestyle changes. A leg massage or a warm bath before bedtime may help. Exercising early in the day may help with RLS and with your ability to fall asleep.
Your doctor may recommend iron supplements if it appears your iron levels are low. Your doctor may also prescribe anti-seizure drugs to control RLS symptoms. If so, be sure to discuss any potential side effects with your doctor or pharmacist.
Narcolepsy symptoms may be treated with some lifestyle adjustments. Brief, scheduled naps may help. Sticking to a regular sleep-wake schedule every night and morning is also recommended. Other tips include:
- getting daily exercise
- avoiding caffeine or alcohol before bedtime
- quitting smoking
- relaxing before bed
All of these things can help you fall asleep and stay asleep better at night. This may help cut down on sleepiness during the day.
Treating depression can be done with a combination of therapy, medications, and lifestyle changes. Antidepressant drugs aren’t always necessary. If your doctor recommends them, they may be needed temporarily.
You may be able to overcome depression through talk therapy and making healthier lifestyle changes, such as exercising more, drinking less alcohol, following a healthy diet, and learning how to manage stress.
Age-related sleep problems
The lifestyle changes that can help treat narcolepsy can also help people experiencing age-related sleep problems. If lifestyle changes alone aren’t enough, talk to your doctor. They can prescribe sleep medications that can improve your quality of sleep.
The bottom line
Getting enough sleep is crucial to good health. If you can identify the cause of your excessive sleepiness and get treatment, you should find yourself feeling more energetic and with a better ability to concentrate during the day.
If your doctor doesn’t ask about your sleep routine, volunteer your symptoms of daytime sleepiness and discuss ways to overcome them. Don’t live with feeling tired every day when you might have a condition that is easily and safely treated.