Sleep disorders are conditions that affect an individual’s ability to sleep well on a regular basis. Over the years, these disorders have become increasingly common worldwide. They are usually either caused by an underlying health problem, or by too much stress.
While it is true that most people will experience sleeping problems occasionally due to stress, hectic schedules, and other external influences – when these issues start occurring on a regular basis and start to interfere with daily life, this may indicate the presence of a sleeping disorder.
There are many different types of sleeping disorders, and depending on this, some may experience difficulties in falling asleep, making them feel exhausted throughout the day. This lack of sleep can also affect energy levels, mood, focus, and overall health.
When sleeping disorders are tied to other medical conditions (be it physical or mental), the sleeping problem usually disappears once the underlying cause is treated. When this is not the case, treatment can involve a combination of both medical treatments, as well as lifestyle changes.
If left untreated, the negative effects associated with sleep disorders can lead to more health problems. Therefore, it is essential to seek professional help, and get diagnosed and treated as soon as possible if you suspect that you might be suffering from a sleep disorder.
What are the different types of sleeping disorders?
As mentioned above, there are many types of sleeping disorders. The most common types include:
- Insomnia. Insomnia is characterised by an inability to fall asleep or remain asleep. It can occur as a result of many factors such as jet lag, stress, hormones, or even problems with digestion. Insomnia can also manifest as a symptom of another health condition. It can negatively impact one’s quality of life by causing depression; difficulty in focusing; irritability; impaired academic or professional performance; or weight gain.
- Sleep apnea. Sleep apnea occurs when an individual experiences pauses in breathing during their sleep. This can be extremely serious as it can result in the body taking in less oxygen. Sleep apnea can also cause sleep disturbances by waking you up during the night.
- Restless leg syndrome. Restless leg syndrome (RLS), as the name implies, is a sleeping condition marked by uncontrollable sensations in the legs that cause an urge for movement. These sensations subside once the leg moves either by walking or stretching. The most common factors that lead to RLS include pregnancy, obesity and anaemia. It can be treated by medication and an adequate intake of iron.
- Parasomnia. Parasomnia is a type of disruptive sleep disorder that is characterised by abnormal sleep behaviours such as sleep walking, sleep talking and rapid eye movements. This condition occurs due to a multitude of different causes and can be treated by sleeping medications.
- Narcolepsy. Narcolepsy is a neurological disorder whereby the affected individual has little or no control over their sleep and wakefulness. People who experience excessive or severe feelings of sleepiness during the daytime, cataplexy (sudden weakness in the muscles of the body that occur while a person is awake), hypnagogic hallucinations, and sleep paralysis, are considered to be suffering from narcolepsy. These individuals are at risk of falling asleep involuntarily sometimes at inappropriate or dangerous times such as while driving. Treatments for narcolepsy include stimulants and antidepressants.
Most common causes of sleep disorders
Sleep disorders can be caused by many different external factors, conditions, diseases or disorders.
Some of the most common causes include allergies and respiratory problems; chronic pain that arises as a result of other conditions such as arthritis, persistent headaches, inflammatory bowel disease and so on.
Stress and anxiety also have a big impact on sleep quality, making it difficult for an individual to fall asleep or stay asleep.
How are sleep disorders diagnosed and treated?
Physicians will often start by performing a physical examination and gather as much information as possible about your symptoms and medical history. Depending on the case, they may also order different tests such as a polysomnography (PSG), which is a lab sleep study that measures oxygen levels, brain waves, and body movements to determine how they are connected to sleep. Home sleep study (HST) is another test that can be performed and used at home to diagnose sleep apnea.
A multiple sleep latency test (MSLT) is a type of test that is conducted during the daytime, that is used in conjunction with a PSG. This can be used to diagnose narcolepsy. Another test that can be used is an electroencephalogram (EEG), which is a test that assesses the electrical activity in the brain.
Treatments for sleeping disorders depend largely on the type of sleeping disorder, and its associated cause. However, generally, treatment includes a combination of both medical treatments and lifestyle changes.
Medications for sleep disturbances may include sleeping pills, melatonin supplements, medications for associated underlying health conditions and breathing devices (for sleep apnea for example).
However, some recommended lifestyle changes to help with sleep disorders include reducing stress and anxiety levels, incorporating more fish and vegetables into your diet, and reducing your sugar intake. Limiting caffeine intake can also help, especially during the late afternoon or evening.
In addition, creating a regular sleeping schedule and sticking to it by going to bed and waking up at the same time (even on weekends) has been shown to significantly improve quality of sleep.
Maha El Akoum, MPH, is a public health professional currently working as Head of Content at World Innovation Summit for Health [WISH].