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Sleep Disorders Overview


How many of us would love to get 8 to 10 hours of sleep nightly but fall short? Likely, 1/3rd of people will develop a sleep disorder at least at some point in their lives. Insomnia (trouble falling asleep or staying asleep) represents the number one sleep disorder in the U.S., with 30% of the population displaying short-term insomnia. In comparison, up to 10% of people continue to have long-term problems with insomnia. Sleep disorders lead to negative health outcomes for the individual and negative impacts on those around them. Knowing how to recognize symptoms of too little or too much sleep and asking for assistance can save lives.

Sleep Disorders 101

Getting enough sleep, one would think, would be easy, right? But upwards of 70 million Americans suffer from sleep disorders annually. Sleep disorders negatively affect an individual, but more than that, one’s lack of sleep can cause mistakes, irritability, and even danger to others. Lack of proper sleep also increases the risks of diseases over time.

Common sleep disorders

Most Americans with sleeping troubles report insomnia as their primary concern. However, there are other causes of sleep disturbances. Common and not-so-common conditions recognized include

  • Insomnia – Problems falling asleep or staying asleep
  • Sleep apnea – Starts and stops or pauses in breathing while sleeping. This leads to feeling unrested, snoring, waking up and gasping for breath, headaches upon waking, irritability, and more
  • Narcolepsy or Hypersomnia (increased sleeping during waking hours)
  • Sleep deprivation - Inadequate total sleep duration
  • Restless leg syndrome (RLS)

A sleep disorder may not be the primary problem. Sleep disturbances also develop secondary to underlying medical conditions such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), obesity, arthritis, and other painful conditions.

Characterizing sleep disorders

Sleep disorders can be described in three general categories.

  1. Dyssomnias are conditions where one cannot fall asleep or stay asleep. This may mean getting too little or too much sleep (insomnia vs. hypersomnia). Examples include abnormal breathing (apnea), restless leg syndrome, and limb movement disorders.
  2. Parasomnias are sleeping states that describe behavioral abnormalities, movements, dreams, or emotions. Examples include teeth grinding (bruxism), bedwetting, night terrors, sleepwalking, or talking in one’s sleep.
  3. Psychiatric or medical conditions such as panic attacks, anxiety, depression, or dependency on alcohol or drugs round out the final group.

Do You Get Enough Sleep?

How much sleep do you require? How much sleep one needs varies from one person to another. The younger you are, the more rest you need, with infants requiring the most and adults the least. Certain ages typically require a certain number of hours to maintain normal function. There are, of course, always outliers, people who do not need as much or require more than the daily recommended for their ages.

Whether you get enough sleep depends on both the duration and quality of your sleep. Sleep quality and duration affect one’s overall health. Work schedules, children, illness, and many other factors impact how long and well one sleeps. No one sleeps well 100% of the time. However, maintaining a routine, always going to bed, and waking at the same time each morning, for example, provide structure and consistency and can help one maintain a certain sleep duration.

Signs of poor sleep duration

Sleeping too little over time takes its toll. You may find yourself with

  • Daytime sleepiness
  • Increased irritability (unexplainable, frequent bad moods)
  • Be less productive (at work, school, or with chores)
  • Be less focused (trouble completing deadlines, projects, goals, even enjoying rest and relaxing)

Sleeping too little puts you at an increased risk of a driving accident and heightened risks of mistakes at work, school, or everyday life choices and tasks. Are your health and that of others worth the risk? Recognizing that you aren’t sleeping sufficiently to meet your needs and taking steps to determine the cause can improve your overall health and those around you.

Signs of Poor Sleep Quality

Do you regularly wake up multiple times per night? Do you fall asleep or lay there for 30 minutes before getting shut eye? Do you spend only 15% of your day sleeping? Are you always tired? Do you have eye redness or bags under your eyes? Is your ability to handle stress decreasing? Are you snapping at others more easily? If you answered yes to one or more of these questions, you are experiencing poor sleep quality.

Sleep quality represents how well you sleep. How you feel and remain healthy doesn’t just depend on how many hours you sleep daily. Sleep quality reflects not only the duration of sleep but how refreshed and rested you feel. Being able to properly function regularly remains critical.

You may be suffering from a decreased sleep quality if you

  • Feel tired despite getting your normal amount of sleep
  • Repeatedly waking up on and off at night
  • Demonstrate signs of a sleep disorder, including snoring

Factors affecting sleep quality

A multitude of factors affects the quality of sleep one obtains regularly. These include

  • Physiological factors - Your age and body mass index, for example
  • Psychological factors - Your levels of stress or anxiety; any depression or other mental illness
  • Environmental factors - The ambient temperature, leaving the tv on while you sleep, sleeping with someone who snores
  • Family and social relationships

Sleep Disorders Increase One’s Risk of Diseases

An untreated sleep disturbance raises your chance of developing certain diseases, along with impaired attention, irritability, mood swings, and daytime tiredness. Problems result when you combine sleep abnormalities with typical daily stressors, environmental variables, and genetic illness risks.

Whether a person fails to stay asleep long enough, wakes up on and off during the night (poor quality sleep), or has breathing issues while sleeping, for example, all contribute to a decline in overall health and well-being. Failing to get enough sleep cumulatively over time can lead to disease states, including

  • Obesity
  • High Blood Pressure
  • Heart Disease
  • Type 2 Diabetes
  • Stroke
  • Dementia
  • Problems with mental health
  • Early mortality (early death)

Daily Sleep Requirements

We all know infants spend most of their days eating, going to the bathroom, and sleeping. A 5-year-old child requires more sleep for growth and development than a post-pubescent 18-year-old. But how much is too much?

Look at the chart to the right for the breakdown of recommended minimum and maximum hours of sleep by age group.

Healthy People 2030 made improving sleep a goal

Every decade the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, establishes a set of objectives. They evaluate current health statistics and project into the future, creating a set of objectives to ‘improve health and well-being over the next decade.’ The goals involve a variety of health topics, and Healthy People 2030 includes improving the nation’s sleep statistics.

One of Healthy People 2030’s Objectives includes increasing the proportion of adults who get enough sleep (SH-03). When this objective started, the data from 2017 suggested that only about 2/3 of people in the U.S. slept sufficiently. By increasing this percentage, even a few percentage points, we help to decrease the burden of disease in the U.S. and improve overall welfare.

Sleep is essential to life, even though many of us feel we can go without it. Incorporating sleep improvements in the U.S. public health goals emphasizes how important sleep is to all of us.

Catching Up on Lost Sleep

Why all the fuss about insufficient sleep? I can catch a power nap (10-15 minutes) during my day or just sleep in on weekends, right? However, can one really catch up on lost sleep? Science suggests no. The negative health effects of too little sleep (whether during the work week or spread out over 7 days) accumulate over time. Studies show that just one hour of sleep loss requires 9 days of adequate sleep to recover. Taking this into account, If you are one of those who frequently skip 1-2 hours of sleep regularly, you are constantly playing catch up. That deficit can lead to negative consequences.

Improving Sleep Hygiene Improves Sleep

Sleep troubles ail millions of Americans. But hope is not lost. You can take action and enhance your quality and duration of sleep. Measures to improve sleep hygiene might look like

  • Develop a sleep routine – Going to bed and rising at the same time every day (even on weekends).
  • Stop using electronic devices, such as smartphones, TVs, or iPads, 30-60 minutes before bedtime; falling asleep with the TV on negatively affects sleep health.
  • Meditate before attempting to fall asleep.
  • Avoid tobacco products.
  • Avoid eating 1-2 hours before bedtime.
  • Avoid alcohol or caffeine before bed.
  • Do not remain sedentary all day long (instead of napping after a meal, consider a walk).
  • Exercise regularly during the day improves health outcomes and encourages falling asleep more easily.
  • Ensure sleep remains your priority – Avoid all-nighters or just finishing one more book chapter or watching one more TV show.

If you are concerned that factors affecting your slumber are health-related, such as sleep apnea, consult a medical professional. Developing healthy sleep habits may aid in improving your sleep. Still, troubles will remain until the underlying disease is identified and treated. Self-care is important and starts with ensuring healthy sleep habits.

Key takeaways

A sleep disorder affects one-third of Americans at some time, with almost 70 million annually experiencing problems sleeping.

Lack of healthy sleep (poor duration, poor quality sleep) increases your risk of diabetes, heart disease, and other conditions.

Recognizing and treating a sleep disorder can save lives.

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