Sleep is a crucial part of both your physical and mental health. Your body uses sleep as a time to put your mind to rest, rebuild muscles you’ve worn out throughout the day, and remove toxins from your brain that accumulate while you’re awake. All of these processes help keep your body healthy and ensure that you have enough energy and stamina to take on the next day. However, for some people, their body struggles to get enough sleep, and as a result, isn’t able to properly complete these processes. In this article, we’ll cover the most common sleep disorders, what causes them, and how you can treat them should you have one.
Understanding Sleep Disorders
Sleep disorders, as the name suggests, are a group of conditions that affect your ability to sleep well regularly. These disorders can be caused by a wide variety of factors including too much stress, health conditions, or medications.
Sleep disorders have become increasingly common in the United States in recent years. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that nearly one-third of adults in the U.S. report getting fewer than seven hours of sleep in a 24-hour period. Furthermore, the same report found that more than 70 percent of high school students report getting fewer than eight hours of sleep on weeknights.
Not getting enough sleep here and there doesn’t necessarily mean that you have a sleep disorder. Most people experience the occasional bout with sleepless nights due to increases in stress levels, irregular sleep schedules, and other outside factors. However, when sleep issues persist and begin to occur regularly, it may be a sign that you have a sleep disorder.
Not all sleep disorders are created equal. Some sleep disorders may cause difficulty falling asleep, while others may make it difficult to stay asleep. In some cases, sleep disorders can be caused by medications or health conditions, while others may be caused by genetics or outside factors.
If you believe that you have a sleep disorder, it’s important to talk with your doctor. Leaving sleep disorders untreated can lead to further health consequences, and can have serious negative side effects on your everyday life.
What Are the Most Common Sleep Disorders?
There are many different types of sleep disorders. Some may be caused by other underlying health conditions. Below is a list of the five most commonly reported sleep disorders in the U.S.
Insomnia refers to the inability to fall asleep or maintain a complete night’s sleep. It is most commonly caused by stress, anxiety, hormones, or digestive problems like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Insomnia can also be caused by chronic pain that causes you to be unable to get a sound night’s sleep, also known as painsomnia.
Insomnia is by far the most common sleep disorder that adults in the U.S. experience. According to the Sleep Foundation, nearly 30% of adults in the U.S. experience occasional insomnia, with as many as 10% suffering from chronic, recurring insomnia. Although the connection remains unclear, insomnia appears to be more common in women than in men and is more prevalent in older individuals.
Typically, insomnia is classified into one of three broad categories:
- Chronic insomnia: Chronic insomnia is insomnia that happens regularly for at least one month
- Intermittent insomnia: When insomnia occurs periodically, it is known as intermittent insomnia
- Transient insomnia: The occasional bout with insomnia for just a few nights at a time is known as transient insomnia
Another common sleep disorder that many adults face is sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is characterized by pauses in breathing during sleep. Not breathing while sleeping is a serious medical condition that causes your body to take in less oxygen.
There are two main types of sleep apnea: obstructive and central. Obstructive sleep apnea happens when the flow of air stops due to an obstruction in the airway. Central sleep apnea occurs when there is a problem with the connection between the brain and the muscles that control your breathing.
Both obstructive and central sleep apnea are serious medical conditions that require immediate attention from your doctor.
Restless Leg Syndrome
Commonly referred to as RLS, restless leg syndrome is a condition that causes an overwhelming, uncontrollable urge to move the legs. Oftentimes, RLS is accompanied by a tingling sensation that is usually felt in the legs and feet. While some people with RLS have symptoms during the daytime, most people experience symptoms at night when they are trying to sleep.
RLS is oftentimes associated with other health conditions. These include attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and Parkinson’s disease, although the exact connection is still unclear.
Parasomnias are a much less common type of sleep disorder. This class of sleep disorders refers to conditions that cause abnormal movements and behaviors that occur during sleep. The most notable type of parasomnia is sleepwalking, which involves getting up and walking around while in a state of sleep. Other common parasomnias include:
- Sleep talking
- Bed Wettings
- Teeth grinding or jaw clenching
Lastly, another common sleep disorder people face is narcolepsy. Narcolepsy is a condition that causes “sleep attacks” which occur while you are awake. These attacks mean that you suddenly feel extremely tired, which often results in falling asleep without warning.
Narcolepsy can also cause sleep paralysis, which causes you to be physically unable to move immediately after waking up. While many people experience narcolepsy on its own, it is also typically accompanied by certain neurological disorders such as multiple sclerosis (MS).
How Can You Tell If You Have a Common Sleep Disorder?
Now that we’ve covered the most common types of sleep disorders, it’s time to go over how you can tell if you are living with one. Symptoms of sleep disorders differ in severity from person to person, and may also vary when they are caused by different conditions or factors.
Common symptoms of sleep disorders include:
- Difficulty falling or staying asleep
- Daytime fatigue
- Strong urge to take naps during the day
- Unusual breathing patterns
- Unusual or unpleasant urges to move while falling asleep
- Unusual movement or other experiences while asleep
- Unintentional changes to your sleep/wake schedule
- Irritability or anxiety
- Impaired performance at work or school
- Lack of concentration
- Weight gain
While understanding the symptoms of these common sleep disorders is important, it’s also important to understand what causes them.
What Causes Sleep Disorders?
There are many different causes of sleep disorders, all of which can cause different levels of disruptions while trying to fall asleep or maintain sleep. In many instances, sleep disorders are the cause of an underlying health condition. Below are three of the most common causes of sleep disorders.
As previously mentioned, painsomnia, or sleep disorders caused by chronic pain, is among the most common reasons for sleepless nights. Constant, recurring pain can make it difficult to fall asleep, and may even wake you up during the night. Some of the most common types of health conditions that cause painsomnia include:
- Chronic fatigue syndrome
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)
- Persistent headaches
- Continuous lower back pain
Stress is undoubtedly one of the most common causes of many health conditions, including difficulties with sleep. Added stress and anxiety often harm sleep quality. It can be difficult for you to fall asleep or stay asleep. Nightmares, sleep talking, or sleepwalking may also disrupt your sleep.
Allergies, colds, and other respiratory infections can make it difficult to catch a sound night’s sleep. Congestion that makes it difficult to breathe through your nose can also cause sleep disorders.
Treating Sleep Disorders
If you believe that you’re living with a common sleep disorder, it may be time to speak with your doctor to discuss what options are available to you. Treating sleep disorders can vary depending on the type and cause of your sleeplessness. With that said, treatment usually involves a combination of medications and lifestyle changes, which we’ll cover next.
Medications and Medical Treatments
Treating sleep disorders with medications is very common, and for many people is a successful way to combat sleeplessness. Medical treatment for sleep disturbances might include any of the following:
- Sleeping pills such as antidepressants, benzodiazepines, or doxepine
- Melatonin (both over-the-counter and prescription)
- Allergy or cold medications
- Breathing devices (typically used for sleep apnea)
- Dental guards (for teeth grinding)
Along with medications and medical procedures, your doctor will likely recommend making some changes to your everyday life to help with your sleep disorder. Lifestyle adjustments can greatly improve your quality of sleep, especially when they’re done along with medical treatments. You may want to consider:
- Eating smaller, low carbohydrate meals close to bedtime
- Reducing stress and anxiety levels through exercise or stretching
- Creating and sticking to a regular sleep schedule
- Decreasing alcohol and tobacco use
- Limiting caffeine intake, especially before bed
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