No one enjoys getting a bad night’s sleep. Whether it’s the torture of tossing and turning through the night or the mental fog and physical fatigue of dragging yourself through the next day, it isn’t a pleasant experience. And when restless nights become a chronic problem, it’s virtually unbearable.
In the long run, sleep disorders can significantly affect your quality of life. Getting enough good sleep is critical for your physical health and brain functioning. When you constantly come up short — whether in sleep hours or quality of rest — it can lead to problems with focusing; increased anxiety and depression; and even heart disease and diabetes.
But even if you know you need better sleep, you may not know how to get it. The good news is that there are various ways to combat common sleep disorders, and we’ll explore them here.
What is a sleep disorder?
A sleep disorder is any condition that regularly disrupts your normal sleep pattern. Whether you struggle with waking frequently or with tossing and turning while you watch the clock, if it’s frequently affecting your ability to get a good night’s rest, you may be suffering from a sleep disorder.
People who have a sleep disorder don’t always notice it immediately. Sometimes you won’t know until someone at home points out your strange nighttime behavior, or the effects of poor sleep begin to catch up with you. That’s because sleep disorders can take many forms — there are actually more than 80 different types. The most common sleep disorders include:
- Sleep apnea.
- Restless leg syndrome.
- Circadian rhythm disorders.
What are the symptoms of sleep disorders?
Symptoms of sleep disorders vary based on the type and severity of the problem. At night, you may experience difficulty falling asleep, or you may find you frequently wake up. If you regularly need more than 30 minutes to fall asleep, it might be a sign of a sleep disorder. Other symptoms that show up at night may be more noticeable to your partner. For instance, you might kick your legs, or you might snore loudly while also making gasping or choking sounds.
Many of the symptoms of sleep disorders show up during the day, though. You might find it difficult to stay awake at work or in the car, or you may be unable to concentrate on regular tasks. Lack of quality sleep can make you feel irritable or fatigued, and you may even experience muscle weakness.
In the long run, symptoms can become more severe. Poor sleep or lack of sleep has been correlated with chronic health problems such as diabetes and heart disease, and sleep disorders can be a sign of other neurological issues, such as Parkinson’s Disease. If you suspect you have a sleep disorder, it’s important to discuss it with your doctor.
Six common sleep disorders
If you are suffering from a sleep disorder, you don’t simply have to live with it. Below, we’ll look at the six most common sleep disorders among adults, and offer some tips to combat them.
Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder in adults. It can manifest as difficulty falling or staying asleep or as a general inability to get good rest. About one-third of US adults report symptoms, and roughly 6% to 10% of them officially meet the criteria for calling it a disorder. Though insomnia can come and go due to stress, hormonal changes and other factors, chronic insomnia can’t be explained by other issues, and it can be considered chronic if it persists for three or more nights a week over more than three months.
The best way to beat insomnia is to stick to a consistent sleep pattern, exercise regularly and limit your intake of food, beverages or other substances that disrupt sleep. Getting up at different times or napping frequently can throw off your body’s natural rhythms, making it harder to fall asleep at night. When you add stimulants like caffeine or depressants like alcohol into the mix, these further disrupt a restful night’s sleep.
Sleep apnea is a breathing disorder that occurs while you sleep, and it usually results from muscles in your throat relaxing and contracting to periodically obstruct your airways. It leads to loud snoring, choking and gasping in your sleep and even moments when you stop breathing altogether. If you sleep alone, it can be difficult to notice these symptoms, but some sleep trackers can help you monitor sleep disturbances. Ultimately, sleep apnea disrupts your sleep and results in many of the same symptoms found with other sleep disorders.
If you or your partner suspect you may have sleep apnea, it’s important to see a doctor or a sleep specialist for an official diagnosis. If they confirm it’s an issue, they may prescribe a variety of treatments, including weight loss, exercise and avoiding alcohol and smoking. It’s recommended that you sleep on your side or stomach, rather than your back. For more severe cases, you may need to use a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) mask or similar device, which helps to keep your airways open while you sleep.
Restless leg syndrome
Restless leg syndrome is a common nighttime disorder with a range of possible symptoms. It causes tingling, crawling or aching sensations in the legs and can make you feel an irresistible urge to move your legs for relief. Sometimes, this leads to leg twitches or kicks. It’s considered a sleep disorder because it manifests mostly at night and causes significant sleep disruptions.
Many of the treatments for other sleep disorders apply to restless leg syndrome, such as exercising regularly and reducing caffeine. Relaxation methods may help, too — try warm baths and massages, as well as alternating warm and cool packs on your legs at night. Foot wraps that apply pressure have been shown to help, and there are medications you can try as well.
Narcolepsy is a type of hypersomnia, a disorder that leads to excessive drowsiness and even falling asleep during the day. In many cases, people with narcolepsy fall asleep suddenly, right in the middle of a task. Lesser-known symptoms include hallucinations, vivid dreams that occur quickly when falling asleep, and even sleep paralysis — the inability to move when waking or falling asleep. Some people also experience cataplexy — sudden, temporary loss of muscle tone after intense emotions.
Although it’s generally a good idea to avoid naps for other sleep disorders, they may actually help with narcolepsy. Short, 20-minute naps can alleviate drowsiness and revive you for a few hours. As with other disorders, be sure to reduce or avoid alcohol and nicotine consumption, exercise regularly and stick to a regular sleep schedule.
Parasomnias are sleep disorders that blur the line between waking and sleeping states. You might walk, talk or eat in your sleep, have vivid nightmares, or move in abnormal ways. These events can be particularly strange to people who live with you, as you may seem partially awake but remain unresponsive to their attempts to communicate with you. Sleep paralysis is also common with these disorders.
As sleep disorders, parasomnias are uniquely dangerous because they can lead not only to drowsiness but also potential physical harm. Parasomniacs may wake up with bruises or cuts, unaware of what caused them.
Treatments for parasomnias are similar to those for other sleep disorders. First and foremost, consult a doctor. You can also practice good sleep hygiene by creating a cool, comfortable sleep environment, and go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. A few other safety precautions include sleeping on the first level of the house, using child-proof locks on doors and removing or locking up weapons or potentially hazardous items. Avoiding caffeine, alcohol, nicotine and recreational drugs is also a good idea.
Shift work disorder
Shift work sleep disorder, or SWSD, is a type of circadian rhythm disorder that occurs when your work prevents you from keeping a regular sleep schedule.
Your body’s circadian rhythms are natural behavioral and physical changes that occur in response to light and dark and that follow a 24-hour cycle. When you work erratic hours, or regularly work night shifts and sleep during the day, it throws off these normal rhythms and often leads to sleep problems. SWSD commonly leads to insomnia or hypersomnia, and it can result in symptoms such as irritability, headaches and lack of focus.
The best treatment for SWSD, of course, is to reduce or eliminate erratic or overnight work hours. If that isn’t possible, however, there are still steps you can take to get your body’s internal clock in line with your schedule. Try to create a comfortable, dark sleep environment at home and enlist others to help you get undisturbed rest during the daytime. You can also use treatments such as bright light therapy or melatonin supplements to stimulate your body’s normal waking and sleeping cycles at the appropriate times.
What’s the best treatment for a sleep disorder?
It depends on your circumstances and the severity of the issue. Many remedies involve simple lifestyle changes, but that may not always be sufficient. In some cases, it may take medications and therapies to help you overcome a sleep disorder. Cognitive behavioral therapy can be particularly effective for treating insomnia, for instance, and some surgeries may be required for sleep apnea.
There’s no single solution. If you think you have a sleep disorder, it’s important to talk to your doctor and eliminate potential causes. Getting an accurate diagnosis is critical for establishing a treatment plan that’ll help you overcome or at least reduce the impact of your sleep disorder.