The Comprehensive Guide to Sleep Disorders
Sleep is important. Really important.
Not getting enough sleep can really disrupt your life—causing drowsiness, irritability and potentially serious health issues.
If you’re having difficulty falling asleep, or waking up feeling tired, it’s possible you’re suffering from a sleep disorder.
In this guide, we’ll cover the most common sleep disorders, including causes, symptoms and treatments.
Disclaimer: While this guide will help you understand common sleep disorders, you should absolutely talk to a doctor if you’re concerned you may have a sleep disorder.
What is Insomnia?
Insomnia is a generic sleep disorder that makes falling asleep and staying asleep difficult.
How much sleep is enough sleep? Typically 7-8 hours per night for the average healthy adult.
Insomnia is typically caused by stress, trauma, medication, or other health issues. Insomnia can last from a few days to weeks (acute insomnia) or several months (chronic insomnia).
Symptoms of insomnia include:
- Trouble falling asleep
- Waking up often or too early
- Low energy
- Constantly tired
- Stress, depression and anxiety
- Difficulty focusing
Insomnia Prevention & Treatment
The best way to avoid insomnia is to practice good sleep hygiene:
- Keep a consistent sleep schedule
- Address causes of stress
- Get regular exercise
- Avoid irregular napping
- Avoid caffeine, nicotine and alcohol
- Limit your bedroom time to sleeping
What is Narcolepsy?
Narcolepsy is a chronic neurological sleep disorder that impacts your ability to control your sleep schedule.
People with narcolepsy suffer from uncontrollable daytime sleepiness, which can cause them to fall asleep at any time throughout the day—especially in relaxing situations.
While the exact causes of narcolepsy are still unknown, genetics are thought to play a role, along with lower levels of the chemical hypocretin—a neurochemical that controls REM sleep.
Symptoms of narcolepsy include:
- Excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS)
- Cataplexy, a sudden muscle weakness
- Sleep paralysis, a temporary inability to speak or move while falling asleep
- Hallucinations while falling asleep
- Irregular sleep patterns and REM sleep
Treatments for Narcolepsy
Narcolepsy can’t be cured, but the following treatments can ease your symptoms:
- Medication like stimulants, antidepressants, SSRIs and SNRIs
- Sticking to a consistent sleep schedule
- Exercising and eating healthy
Again: consult with a doctor before taking any medications to treat symptoms of narcolepsy.
What is Sleep Apnea?
Sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder in which breathing is interrupted during sleep—sometimes hundreds of times per night. This is typically characterized by loud snoring.
Sleep apnea is caused by relaxation of the throat muscles, which leads to an obstruction of the airways that can restrict oxygen to the brain. The sleeper will then compensate by snorting, gasping for air or even jolting awake while choking.
According to Medical News Today, as many as 1 in 5 adults experience mild sleep apnea.
Being male, overweight and/or over the age of 40 increases the likelihood of sleep apnea.
Sleep Apnea Symptoms
Symptoms of sleep apnea include:
- Loud snoring
- Waking up repeatedly
- Restless sleep or insomnia
- Sore throat or dry mouth
Treatment & Prevention for Sleep Apnea
Sleep apnea treatments include:
- Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), a machine that regulates breathing through a mask
- Oral appliances that hold your jaw in place, available from most dentists
- Weight loss
- Sleeping on your side (rather than your back)
- Throat or jaw surgery, in cases where other treatments don’t work
What are Night Terrors?
Night terrors, also known as sleep terrors, are recurring instances of extreme fear during sleep.
Night terrors typically include screaming, crying, thrashing or even sleepwalking.
Night terrors are different from nightmares. After a nightmare, you typically wake up remembering at least a few details of the dream.
But someone experiencing a night terror stays asleep throughout the episode (even if you try to wake them up) and typically won’t remember the dream.
About 1-6% of children suffer from night terrors, but they tend to stop by age 13.
In most cases, sleep terrors don’t have a specific cause, but stress, depression or other sleep problems can be contributing factors.
Night Terror Symptoms
Night terrors typically occur during the first third of the night, before the sleeper achieves rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.
Night or sleep terror symptoms include:
- A fast heart rate and fast breathing
- Heavy sweating
- Screaming, shouting or thrashing
- Sitting up or sleepwalking
- Unresponsive to being woken up or spoken to
Treatments for Night Terrors
While night terrors typically go away on their own over time, treatments may include:
- Treating an underlying mental health problem, like stress
- Anticipatory awakening, which involves waking up the sleeper a few minutes before they usually experience an episode
- Better sleep hygiene
- Medication (in rare cases)
Restless Legs Syndrome
What is Restless Legs Syndrome?
Restless legs syndrome (RLS), also known as Willis-Ekbom disease (WED), is an uncomfortable feeling in the legs that results in twitchiness or an urge to move the legs.
While it can happen throughout the day when you’re sitting or lying down, it’s commonly classified as a sleep disorder because it often interferes with sleep.
Researchers don’t know the exact cause of RLS/WED, but it may be related to a dopamine imbalance in the brain.
It has also been linked to genetics, pregnancy and chronic diseases like iron deficiency, Parkinson’s disease, kidney failure, diabetes and other neurological conditions.
Restless Legs Syndrome Symptoms
RLS/WED sufferers tend to experience:
- Leg discomfort described as aching, throbbing, tugging, tingling or burning
- Temporary relief with leg movement
- Stronger symptoms at night, in bed and in confined spaces
- Mood swings, irritability or depression caused by a lack of sleep
Treatments for Restless Legs Syndrome
Medical RLS/WED treatments include:
- Iron supplements, painkillers or anticonvulsants
- Drugs that regulate dopamine
- Drugs that regulate calcium
- Muscle relaxants or sleeping medications
Once again: please consult a doctor before taking any of the above-listed medications.
More natural home remedies include:
- Practicing proper sleep hygiene
- Frequent exercise
- Baths or massages
- Hot or cold packs on the legs
- Relaxation techniques like yoga or tai chi
What is Sleepwalking?
Sleepwalking, also known as somnambulism, is a sleep disorder that causes you to get up and walk around during sleep.
Sleepwalking usually takes place when you’re transitioning from a deeper sleep to a lighter sleep.
In most cases, sleepwalkers are unresponsive while experiencing an episode and won’t remember having sleepwalked once they wake up.
In severe cases, sleepwalkers may even do routine activities around the house, like getting dressed, talking or eating.
Sleepwalking can be caused by sleep deprivation, stress, fever or genetics.
While adults can suffer from somnambulism, it’s far more common among children aged 4-8.
Sleepwalking tends to happen 1-2 hours after falling asleep and will include:
- Sitting up in bed while still asleep
- Quietly walking around
- A glassy-eyed expression
- Unresponsiveness and difficulty being woken up
- Disorientation or confusion
- Sleep terrors
Treatments for Sleepwalking
In most cases, sleepwalking doesn’t require treatment and will go away with age. In serious cases, the following treatments can help:
- Addressing underlying sleep disorders
- Therapy or counseling
- Practicing better sleep hygiene
Not getting enough sleep?
If you’re having trouble sleeping, practicing good sleep hygiene is often the trick.
Here are a few tips:
- Stick to a regular sleep schedule
- Cut out afternoon caffeine
- Avoid electronic screens before bed
- Exercise regularly
- Avoid your bedroom until bedtime
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