Most people have trouble falling asleep at some point in their lives. But chronic sleep problems and ongoing daytime fatigue could point to a more serious disorder. More than 25 percent of Americans report that they, at times, do not get enough sleep, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Read on to determine if your sleeping habits could signal a medical condition.
The following may be warning signs of a sleep disorder:
- consistently taking more than 30 minutes to fall asleep
- perpetual fatigue and irritability during the day, even after getting seven or eight hours of sleep a night
- waking up several times in the middle of the night and remaining awake, sometimes for hours
- frequent and long naps during the day
- difficulty concentrating at work or school
- falling asleep at inappropriate times, mostly when sitting still while watching television or reading
- waking up too early in the morning
- loud snoring, breathing, or gasping noises while you sleep
- an irresistible urge to move your legs, or a tingling or crawling feeling in the legs, particularly at bedtime
- requiring a stimulant such as caffeine to keep you awake during the day
The first step to understanding the source of your sleep problems is starting a sleep journal. Every day, record how many hours you slept the night before, the quality of the sleep, and any other factors that could have affected your sleep. Factors may include alcohol and caffeine consumption, exercise, and naps. Also, record how you felt in the morning after awaking and throughout the day.
After a few weeks, examine your sleep journal closely for any patterns of behavior. The journal should reveal any habits that could be interfering with your sleep. You can then make adjustments and cut out any activity that might have interfered with a sound night’s sleep. Talk to your doctor about your concerns and findings.
Armed with your sleep journal, you should have no problem answering questions about your sleep habits at a doctor’s appointment. Your doctor might ask you about:
- caffeine intake
- lifestyle disruptions that could be affecting your sleep
If your doctor feels it necessary, they might refer you to a “sleep lab” where a specialist will observe your heart, brain function, and breathing during sleep. Neurological and cardiovascular activity during your sleep might hold the answer to why you have trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep. The sleep specialist will have advice and a diagnosis for you based on these exams.
Sometimes a sleep disorder is caused by a medical condition. The following have all been linked to sleep disorders:
- nasal and sinus inflammation
- diabetes mellitus
- Parkinson’s disease
- high blood pressure
- clinical depression
Often, however, a sleep disorder is caused by nonmedical factors. These include:
- poor sleep habits
- lifestyle factors
- stressful circumstances
- dietary choices
It’s important to pay attention to what could be causing your sleep problems before assuming that there is a larger health issue at play.
Sleep disorders affect many people, so don’t be hesitant to talk to your doctor if you think you may have one.
This is defined as the inability to fall or stay asleep that results in functional impairment throughout the following day. Insomnia is the most commonly diagnosed sleep disorder. A massive CDC study revealed that sleep duration varies greatly according to profession, employment status, marital status, and state of residence. Having another chronic health condition, such as diabetes or heart disease, also increases your chances of being affected by insomnia.
Restless legs syndrome (RLS)
RLS is an unpleasant creeping sensation that can cause aches and pains in the legs that make it difficult to fall asleep. Up to 10 percent of Americans may have RLS in some form, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Most people with severe RLS are middle aged or older, and women are twice as likely to have the condition.
RLS is classified as a neurological disorder. Treatment options and diagnosis methods are different than other sleep disorders. Talk to your doctor if you have symptoms of RLS. They’ll help you find relief from both the syndrome and the underlying cause.
Sleep apnea is defined as interrupted sleep caused by periodic gasping or snorting noises, or the momentary suspension of breathing. A deviated septum or polyps in the sinuses can cause difficulty breathing during sleep. People with sleep apnea aren’t able to get enough oxygen while they sleep, resulting in sleep interruption and difficulty.
Sleep apnea is typically treated with a small machine and mask that administer pressure on the sinuses during sleep. This treatment is called continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP). Oral appliances and even surgery may also be recommended to treat sleep apnea.
Veterans and other people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are nearly 70 percent more likely to be affected by sleep apnea, according to a recent study by the National Sleep Foundation. Being overweight to the point of obesity also makes obstructive sleep apnea more likely.
Other sleep disorders
Less common sleep disorders include:
- narcolepsy, a condition in which a person cannot control when they fall asleep and they have episodes of unwanted sleep
- circadian rhythm sleep disorder, in which a person has trouble “aligning” their body’s natural inclinations for sleep with the rising and setting of the sun
- Kleine-Levin syndrome, also known as “Sleeping Beauty” syndrome, a condition in which a person will sleep for periods of two or more days at a time
- idiopathic hypersomnia, a condition where a person is uncontrollably tired or sleepy despite consistently getting the recommended amount of sleep
Treatments for sleep disorders will vary according to the diagnosis and cause. There are many suggested treatments, from behavioral therapies to prescription medications.
Relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing and meditation, are often the first treatment recommended by doctors when a person is diagnosed with insomnia. Cognitive therapies and “sleep restriction therapy” seek to redefine the act of sleep in an individual’s mind so that they are able to fall asleep more easily. All of these treatments, however, are based on the idea that the underlying sleep disorder is psychological.
Natural remedies, such as lavender oil, acupuncture, and chamomile tea, are easy to find and try. The effectiveness of these treatments is difficult to prove, but many people anecdotally claim to get relief from sleep disorders through holistic treatments.
Prescription medications for sleep disorders (insomnia) may include one of the following:
- zolpidem (Ambien)
- eszopiclone (Lunesta)
- doxepin (Silenor)
- diphenhydramine (Unisom, Benadryl)
These medications can help you fall asleep more easily and sleep for longer durations of time. However, some of these medications can lead to dependence. If you are looking for a long-term solution to your sleep disorder, it's always better to identify the underlying cause.
A wide range of factors, both medical and nonmedical, have an effect on healthy sleep. Therefore, practicing good sleep hygiene is an essential starting point for greater happiness and productivity. Pay close attention to your sleep habits, and don’t shrug off your exhaustion as something you simply have to live with. Through healthy habits and medical treatment, you’ll find relief for sleepless nights.