We often take it for granted, expecting that every night we’ll drift into sweet slumber. But for millions of people around the world, sleep is a challenge. Due to sleep disorders, they find themselves unable to sleep, or worse.
But what exactly are sleep disorders? And what causes them?
In this post, we’re going to break down both the what and why of sleep disorders, as well as explain the effects of lack of sleep on the human body.
Ready? Let’s dive in.
Quick Article Navigation
What Is A Sleep Disorder?
Put simply, a sleep disorder is a change in the way you sleep. Instead of sleeping well and getting a good night’s rest, new, unhealthy sleep patterns are introduced into your life, altering the very fabric of your sleep.
Sleep problems are widespread, with approximately 10-20% of people saying that they struggle with significant sleep problems, and another 33% of adults reporting insomnia-like symptoms.
Sleep disorders can be grouped in a variety of ways, including difficulty falling asleep, feeling extra sleepy during the day, having trouble breathing at night, problems with your natural sleep-wake cycles, and behaviors at night while sleeping.
How do you know if you have a sleep disorder? There are some common symptoms that are signs that something is greatly amiss with your sleep:
- Excessive sleepiness during the day
- Irregular breathing patterns at night
- Irregular movements at night
- Difficulty falling asleep
If you struggle with any of these symptoms, there is a good chance that you’re struggling with some form of sleep disorder.
What Are Some Common Sleep Disorders?
There are a variety of common sleep disorders which affect millions of people around the world.
These disorders include:
Perhaps the most well-known of all sleep disorders, insomnia is characterized by the inability to either fall asleep or stay asleep, resulting in a person getting insufficient sleep.
For most people with insomnia, it takes more than 20-30 minutes to fall asleep (or fall back asleep). If this happens at least three times per week for more than three months it is called “chronic insomnia”.
Approximately 10% of all adults are officially diagnosed with insomnia, making it the most common sleep disorder.
Insomnia is often treated with either Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or medication.
Sleep apnea is an extreme form of snoring. It is a chronic medical condition in which a person stops breathing repeatedly while they are sleeping. This stoppage of breath can last 10 seconds or more and can cause both oxygen levels to drop and the person to temporarily awake from sleep.
Typically, sleep apnea is caused by one of two things. First, it can be the result of an obstruction of the upper airway. This is called “obstructive sleep apnea”. It can also be caused by the brain itself failing to initiate breathing, which is called “central sleep apnea”.
If left untreated, the health effects of sleep apnea can be significant, including:
All of these are in addition to the extreme sleepiness which sleep apnea typically causes.
Sleep apnea is typically treated with a CPAP device, which forces a steady stream of air into a person’s nose to ensure that they keep breathing.
If you want to know more about sleep apnea, here’s a helpful video:
Restless Leg Syndrome
Restless leg syndrome (RLS) is a disorder in which the person feels the need to constantly move while in bed, particularly their legs. People often describe the sensation as aching, burning, tingling, or even feeling like bugs are crawling on their legs. These symptoms can make it extremely difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep.
There are many causes of restless legs, including pregnancy, iron deficiency, and obesity.
RLS can be treated through exercise, a reduction in caffeine or alcohol, and in severe cases, medication.
Circadian Rhythm Disorders
Your circadian rhythm is your body’s internal clock, telling you when to wake up and when to go to sleep. Circadian rhythm disorders occur when a person’s internal clock is out of sync with the external world.
For example, being wide awake at 2:00 AM may indicate that your circadian rhythm has gotten out of sync with the light-dark cycle.
Typically, these disorders happen due to shifting work, jet lag, advanced or delayed sleep phase syndrome, or blindness. The mismatch between the circadian rhythm and the external cues can result in insomnia or extreme sleepiness.
Circadian rhythm disorders can be treated with medication or natural supplements such as melatonin.
Parasomnias are sleep disorders characterized by strange, abnormal sleep behaviors. These behaviors can be complex and are done unconsciously, as the person is fully asleep. These behaviors can include everything from sleep terrors to sleepwalking to sleep eating to even sleep sex.
There can be a number of underlying causes, including sleep apnea. Thankfully, these disorders can often be treated with medications such as melatonin or clonazepam.
Sleep paralysis involves the temporary inability to move as a person moves from sleep to wakefulness or vice versa. This temporary feeling of paralysis can be quite frightening and often involves hallucinations as well. The disorder is common, with around 25% of people experiencing it at least once.
If necessary, sleep paralysis can be treated with medication.
There are four symptoms typically associated with narcolepsy:
- Excessive sleepiness during the day
- Cataplexy (the sudden loss of muscle tone in response to a particular stimulus such as laughter or surprise)
- Sleep paralysis
- Hypnagogic hallucinations (very vivid hallucinations)
The result of these symptoms can be a person seemingly falling asleep in an instant at any point in time.
Narcolepsy is most often treated with medications.
For more information on narcolepsy, here’s a helpful video:
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS) is an ongoing, unexplained fatigue that is not lessened by rest or sleep. It may be worsened through physical or mental activity, and the results can be extreme, causing a person to be practically incapacitated.
The fatigue can be so extreme that a person is forced to adapt their daily schedule so that they can preserve as much energy as possible.
Before a person can be diagnosed with CFS, other underlying causes, such as sleep apnea, must be ruled out.
What Are The Effects Of Lack Of Sleep?
There are numerous detrimental effects of lack of sleep.
- Not getting enough sleep can cause you to have memory problems. Sleep is essential to forming memories and not getting enough sleep can affect both your long-term and your short-term memory.
- Sleeplessness can also result in difficulty concentrating and problem-solving.
- Mood changes are a common side effect of lack of sleep. When you don’t get enough sleep, your emotions are on a hair-trigger and can lead to depression or anxiety.
- If you sleep less than five hours per night, your risk of high blood pressure greatly increases.
- A lack of sleep is detrimental to your immune system, making you much more vulnerable to viruses that cause the common cold and the flu.
- Weight gain is a common side effect of not getting enough sleep. When you’re sleep-deprived, your brain doesn’t send the normal signals to your body that you’re full, resulting in overeating.
- Many people who don’t sleep enough find themselves experiencing a low sex drive. In men, this may be caused by a drop in overall testosterone levels.
- A lack of sleep can affect your body’s ability to control insulin levels, which is a blood-sugar-lowering hormone. Those who don’t get enough sleep often have higher levels of blood sugar, which can eventually result in Type-2 diabetes.
- When you don’t get enough sleep, your balance and coordination are affected, making you much more prone to falling.
Don’t Neglect Your Sleep
Sleep is absolutely essential for your body to function properly. When you don’t get enough sleep, all manner of problems arises, affecting your life in significantly negative ways. You should do whatever is necessary to get as much sleep as you need.
If you suspect that you have a sleep disorder, talk to a health professional today. Left untreated, sleep disorders can wreak havoc on your life.
Don’t let a sleep disorder keep you from living the life you deserve. Get treatment today.