Sleep Disorders

It has been said that fatigue makes cowards of us all, and anyone who has felt the effects of a night of poor sleep can probably attest to the truth in that. The word sleep is often used conversationally to convey the idea of healing, clarity and the promise of a successful day. “Did you sleep okay?” is a common cheery morning greeting. “Why don’t you sleep on it?” is a thoughtful friend’s advice. Or the brutally honest coworker who says, “Man, you look like you need some sleep!” 

Lack of sleep, either in quality or quantity, can lead to poor work or school performance, an impatient or crabby mood, and impaired judgment and decision-making abilities in life. In other words, it can basically sabotage everything that we need in order to get anything. You know…that’s all. 

Since sleep is so near and dear to our hearts, our sanity and our success, let’s look at some of the main sleep disorders that clinicians report treating and the suggestions they have to help us deal with them. As the topic is extensive and much is still being researched on the causes and treatments, there will be some inevitable overlap in the descriptions and suggestions, but here are some of the basics:

Insomnia

The inability to sleep is a common sleep disorder and can further be broken down into onset and maintenance insomnia (as in, do you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep? Or both?), acute (situational and quick to self-resolve) and chronic (more than three times a week for more than three months). From here on out, it can get pretty complicated, as the causes can range from very simple and easily fixable (uncomfortable bedding, poor room temperature regulation, a noisy environment or a sleepmate who steals the covers and wraps up like a burrito every night) to complex and requiring professional help (depression or other psychiatric causes, chemical imbalances, neurological or endocrine issues, and many more). A licensed professional can check for a medical condition that is causing your insomnia and assist in the appropriate treatment for it, or discuss if medication would be right for you. 

Abnormal Sleep Behavior Disorders

These people won the battle of getting to sleep, but are losing the war of getting good sleep due to odd behavior that occurs once they get there. By now most of us have learned that sleep falls into two broad categories of REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM, with the majority of vivid, memorable dreams occurring in the REM stage. Normally during REM sleep, we experience relative muscle atonia or paralysis, which is a good thing because that keeps us from acting out dreams and hurting ourselves or others. When this built-in safety device isn’t functioning properly, it is known as REM Sleep Behavior Disorder. This can be dangerous for the sleeper and for anyone else nearby. Remove dangerous or sharp objects from the immediate vicinity if this is a common occurrence. Keep a close eye out for other neurological symptoms, as those who experience this have an increased chance of developing Parkinson’s disease later in life. 

Sleepwalking, sleep talking, and excessive nightmares would also fall under the category of Abnormal Sleep Behavior Disorders. These are more common in children and in males, and causes range from sleep deprivation, fever, excessive alcohol intake or certain medications. 

Excessive Daytime Sleepiness Disorders

While either one of the two sleep disorders mentioned already can lead to daytime sleepiness, one of the primary causes has been identified as Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA.) People with OSA wake up many (sometimes more than 100) times during the night as they struggle to breathe, and often they never make it to that deep, restful sleep that we all long for and truly need. If you know that you snore at night, or have woken up suddenly because you weren’t breathing, you should be evaluated by a health professional for OSA. A simple sleep study can assess your sleep health and patterns, and a CPAP machine trial can be ordered as needed. Most have found these machines to be extremely beneficial. OSA is not just an annoyance and a sleep-stealer, it is a potentially life-threatening situation that should be taken seriously. 

Other common causes of daytime sleepiness include sleep deprivation, sedating medications, and less commonly, narcolepsy (falling asleep unwillingly and briefly during the day.) 

In addition to these main categories of sleep disorders, some people simply have unfortunate life circumstances that make sleep difficult, such as shift workers and those who suffer from chronic pain or debilitating anxiety. Other causes can be over-sensitivity to light, sound or certain smells in your bedroom, or frequent travel. There is a wealth of helpful information at SleepFoundation.org for almost every sleep challenge imaginable, including how to overcome bad sleep habits and form new healthy ones. If you are still stumped, try keeping a sleep journal to help you zero in on recurring culprits (eating certain foods, eating late at night, watching TV in bed, or other habits.) Making a few simple changes on your own can make a big difference, but asking your healthcare provider for personalized tips can help you get the rest you deserve. Peaceful slumbers and sweet dreams to you all.

Melanie Ransic
Author: Melanie Ransic