Many people are able to go to bed at night and sleep until morning. But those with irregular sleep-wake syndrome experience disrupted sleep that’s often unstructured.
If you have irregular sleep-wake syndrome, you likely sleep for under 4 hours at a time. You may have several sleep sessions within a 24-hour period.
But if you have this syndrome, you aren’t necessarily considered sleep-deprived — you get an adequate amount of sleep. However, your sleep is spread over a 24-hour period rather than concentrated into 7 or 8 hours.
It’s helpful to know a little about circadian rhythms and their relation to sleep to better understand irregular sleep-wake syndrome.
Circadian rhythms are physical, mental, and behavioral rhythms that are around 24 hours in duration, are intrinsic to the individual, and respond to light and dark. Your body essentially has a 24-hour internal clock. This clock controls a number of processes, including sleep-wake cycles.
Melatonin is a hormone produced by the brain that makes you feel tired. This hormone is secreted in higher amounts at night, when it’s dark. It’s vital to the regulation of normal sleep-wake cycles.
The root cause of irregular sleep-wake syndrome is a near absence of the circadian rhythm responsible for regulating periods of wakefulness and rest.
People with neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s disease are at an increased risk for developing irregular sleep-wake syndrome.
The prevalence of irregular sleep-wake syndrome increases with age. However, age itself isn’t a risk factor. Age-related increases in medical, neurological, and psychiatric disorders contribute to the development of this condition.
Some factors unrelated to irregular sleep-wake syndrome can temporarily disrupt the sleep-wake rhythm. These include working irregular work shifts (switching between day shifts and overnight shifts) and frequent travel among different time zones.
Sleeping and waking at irregular times and sleeping for short periods can occur due to life circumstances and aren’t medical emergencies.
When your sleep schedule is variable in timing and quantity, there can be associated difficulty sleeping and daytime sleepiness. Irregular sleep-wake syndrome is very uncommon compared with irregular sleep scheduling.
However, you may want to see a doctor if you’re exhibiting signs of irregular sleep-wake syndrome on a regular basis and haven’t yet been diagnosed with the disorder, especially if you have risk factors.
This is especially important if you can’t think of any factors that could be accounting for the disturbance.
Your doctor will ask you about recent sleeping habits. They’ll also ask about ongoing issues with insomnia or excessive sleepiness during the day.
Your doctor may use a sleep diary and an actigraph to help diagnose irregular sleep-wake syndrome. A sleep diary involves keeping a record of how long and when you slept over a set period. An actigraph is a device that resembles a watch and tracks your sleep-wake patterns.
These tools will likely be used to track your sleep for at least 7 days. A physician will look for a minimum of three cycles of sleeping and waking within a period of 24 hours to make a diagnosis.
There’s no simple cure for irregular sleep-wake syndrome. However, several therapies and lifestyle changes may help. Here are some tips:
- Control your exposure to light. You should be exposed to bright light and blue light during the day. The period of exposure should also be increased. Limit your exposure to blue light from TV and computer screens at night.
- Take melatonin supplements.
- Add more structure to your day. This could include scheduling social interaction, exercise, and other activities.
- Make your sleep environment as inviting and comfortable as possible.
- Minimize the amount of noise in your sleep environment.
The ultimate goal of treatment is to help you sleep longer at night and maximize wakefulness during the day.