Sleep is one of those things that you do not think about much when it is all going well. It is only when it is not that you start to focus on it. The worse your trouble with sleeping is the more you will think about sleep. The more central it becomes to your life, and the more important you realise it is to your life. For most people the act of sleeping is a fairly simple one, they get tired, they go to bed and they fall asleep. If only it was that easy for everyone. For some people there is a disconnect between the going to bed and the falling asleep. For others falling asleep is not a problem, they just wake up during the night, sometimes frequently. For others still it’s not the amount of sleep they get, it’s the quality of sleep they get. There are many sleep disorders, more than we possibly even know of at the moment. They range from the annoying to the downright dangerous. Not all of them are obvious to the person suffering them. So what is a sleep disorder? How do you even know if you have a sleep disorder? What are the most common sleep disorders? Read on for all the answers you need.
What is a sleep disorder?
Sleep is not actually a single continuous state, but rather is categorised by two types--REM and non-REM sleep. Non-REM is also broken up into four stages of sleep, from the very lightest first stage through to the deepest fourth stage. During a normal night’s sleep you go through all the non-REM stages and then into REM several times over. If you do not get all of these stages of sleep then you will not feel refreshed in the morning. Generally speaking a sleep disorder is categorised as any condition that inhibits you from naturally progressing through these stages of sleep during a six or seven hour period either because you are unable to get to sleep, you are unable to go back to sleep once you have woken or something is disturbing you will you sleep, stopping you from going through these stages. There are a number of common sleep disorders, including:
Insomnia is the best known of the sleep disorders, though really the term covers a range of different issues. There is no one single ‘insomnia’ as it really just refers to the inability to get enough good quality sleep in a night. While insomnia can be a random occurrence, just striking someone in a single night, for others it is a chronic condition that can last weeks, months and years. For some people, insomnia means not being able to go to sleep at all, while for others the symptoms are waking frequently and/or having trouble getting back to sleep after they have woken. There are a range of different possible causes for insomnia including stress, anxiety, depression, poor sleep habits, poor diet, mental disorders, circadian rhythm disorders and a number of medications, amongst many others. Often people’s insomnia is caused by a number of these factors together. This means that when people with insomnia are treated, the medical expert will first need to ascertain what is causing the problem. Only then can a treatment plan be devised.
Sleep apnea is an incredibly common sleep disorder. They estimate that around 12 per cent of adults suffer from sleep apnea. An apnea is a pause in breathing and sleep apneas occur when the airway is blocked during the night. The airway gets blocked by the person’s own throat, and it is more common among people who are overweight or have narrow airways. This can cause snoring as well as a cessation in breathing. People who have sleep apnea may stop breathing many times in the night and this will often jolt them out of sleep so that their sleep cycle is disturbed, even if they are not aware of it. People with sleep apnea will often wake in the morning feeling like they have slept all night, though they will often feel drained and exhausted as they have not actually had a restorative sleep. Treating apnea depends on the cause of the obstruction, while for many it is as simple as losing weight or control of diet, for others surgical options are the only recourse.
Circadian rhythm disorders
The body clock is the internal time keeper, it helps regulate people’s sleep-wake cycle, ensuring that they are tired at night and awake in the morning. It does this by synchronising with the day-night cycle using changing light intensity and colour. While the body clock works well in most people for some it doesn’t. There are a number of circadian rhythm disorders that can cause people to struggle to sleep properly. The most commonly known of these disorders is jetlag, where the body is out of sync with the day-night cycle because it has moved across time zones. However, there are a number of other circadian rhythm disorders, including delayed sleep phase syndrome (where you fall asleep and wake up too late), and advanced sleep phase syndrome (where you fall asleep and wake up too early), that are not caused by travel. Circadian rhythm disorders can have a number of causes, meaning that treatment must be tailored to the individual.
Narcolepsy is a brain disorder that makes people sleepy during the day, and they often then find it hard to get to sleep at night. While this is sometimes thought to be a genetic issue other sufferers do not have a family history that indicates they would suffer from it. While some sufferers will actually fall asleep during the day, others just feel tired all day without any periods of actual sleep. Because many sufferers do not actually fall asleep during the day they are often misdiagnosed as being insomniacs because of their trouble sleeping at night, but the main issue with a narcoleptic is their daytime tiredness. There are no known treatments for narcolepsy, and most sufferers are given medication to help them stay awake during the day so that they can sleep at night.
Bruxism is the excessive grinding of the teeth and/or excessive clenching of the jaw during sleep. The excessive grinding and clenching will often cause the sufferer to wake up or have their sleep stages disturbed so that they do not get a good night’s sleep. It is estimated that between 8 and 31 per cent of the population suffer from bruxism. There are a number of symptoms associated with this condition beyond the disturbed sleep, including sore teeth and jaws, headaches and even damaged teeth. Fortunately, it is easily cured through the use of a mouth guard during the night.
Restless legs syndrome
Restless leg syndrome is exactly what it sounds like, for sufferers there is a discomfort in the legs and feet. The sensations can range from a dull pain or an aching in the muscles, to ‘an itch you can't scratch’, to an unpleasant ‘tickle that won't stop’ right through to a “crawling” feeling. This sensation becomes pronounced during the evening and night. They are driven to constantly move their legs to try and gain relief and this will also occur while they are asleep. Restless leg syndrome sufferers find it harder to get to sleep and they unconscious movement during the night will often cause them to wake or have their sleep cycle broken over the night. At its most basic, treatment for this syndrome involves exercising the legs, though often people need medication to help them sleep at night.
As indicated some of these sleep disorders can be quite easily treated. However, many sleep disorders are difficult to treat as they are not very well understood by the medical community. Often the best treatments are the most simple ones—namely a change in diet, more exercise, greater exposure to light during the day, the creation of a good sleep environment and the use of mental exercises to help the brain relax in the evening. All of us can improve our sleep health by making basic changes, we have a number of resources that can help you with all of these factors here.
That said, if you think that you have a sleep disorder then the first thing that you need to do is go and see a sleep expert, they will help to diagnose you and they will provide you with a range of different treatment options. Remember that while it may be tempting to take sleeping pills so you can have a full night’s sleep, the sleep that you get with a sleeping pill is not as good as a natural night’s sleep and long term use of sleeping pills can generate a dependency which makes it harder to get a natural night’s sleep.
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