Nobody is immune to the occasional bad night’s sleep. Sometimes those few nights can even stretch into a week or so. Often, we can put it down to a particular cause, move through our irritability and fatigue, recover with a great night’s sleep and life goes on. But for some of us, having difficulty with sleep is a debilitating way of life. We explore a number of common sleep problems, symptoms and their possible causes.
The flow on effect: why good sleep patterns matter
Ideally, we should spend a third of our lives asleep. According to the SleepFoundation.org, our body uses sleep time to produce chemicals that help it grow and repair, while also boosting the immune system so we can fight infection and illness. From a psychological perspective, studies indicate that sleep is crucial for concentration, memory and coordination. Without enough sleep we can have trouble focusing and our response time is longer than those who have healthy sleep patterns. Detrimental effects of poor sleep can result in an ongoing negative impact on our personal and professional lives, and in some instances, when we consider things like slower response time, affect our safety too.
Common sleep disorders
While the reasons preventing healthy, regular sleep patterns can vary greatly, there are some poor sleep patterns that have been formally defined as disorders. Some of these disorders can be eased with treatment or changing behaviours, however, not everyone living with a sleep disorder responds with the same level of success to recommended treatments.
Possibly one of the most common sleep disorders, someone with insomnia experiences persistent problems with sleep, lasting for over a month. Issues may include difficulty falling asleep, waking up during the night, waking early and being unable to return to sleep and experiencing poor sleep quality.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, snoring is defined as noisy breathing during sleep, and while snoring affects people of all ages and genders, it's more common amongst men than women. Snoring that is consistently loud and pronounced may actually be a form of sleep apnea.
Obstructive Sleep Apnoea
This is another common sleep disorder where there are one or more pauses in breathing or low breathing during sleep. This occurs because the upper passages of a person’s airways close up, cutting off oxygen and interrupting breathing until the person wakes up and starts breathing again.
A chronic disorder of the central nervous system characterised by the brain's inability to control sleep-wake cycles, causing an excessive urge to fall into a deep sleep at inappropriate times. According to Sleep.org, narcolepsy affects 1 in 2000 people, and is also referred to as a ‘unplanned sleep attack’. Narcolepsy can not only be embarrassing, it can be dangerous, as it can occur at any time, even when a person is driving.
Periodic limb movements of sleep
This sleep disorder is characterised by intermittent jerks of the legs, feet, arms or twitching of the hips that occur as an individual enters slow wave sleep and can cause arousal from sleep. It occurs uncontrollably about every 10 to 60 seconds. This condition is more common in older people, with the highest percentage of people experiencing it over 65 years of age.
Internationally renowned sleep expert, Doctor Carmel Harrington PHD, Director of Sleep for Health and an Honorary Research Fellow at the Children's Hospital Westmead, defines nightmares – or frightening dreams – as a legitimate sleep disorder. Common causes include stress, anxiety and even certain forms of medication and other drugs. When people begin to experience nightmares to the point of regular interference with sleep patterns, treatment can include Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
What causes sleep problems?
The list of causes for sleep disorders include multiple factors, some of which are environmental that can be altered or controlled, while other factors may need further treatment.
Environmental factors that may cause sleep problems or disorders include:
Noise, temperature, light
Anxiety and stress
Diet, lack of exercise, alcohol and caffeine intake
Non-environmental factors that may cause sleep problems or disorders:
Physical ailments such as ulcers
Respiratory issues such as asthma
Genetics (Researchers have found a genetic basis for narcolepsy and periodic limb movements are believed to originate in the nervous system )
Prescribed medication and drugs
Physical changes to the body through ageing (i.e. menopause)
Treatment for sleep disorders
The first step would involve a visit to a GP who can provide a referral to a sleep specialist. Some disorders are treatable through a combination of behavioural change in relation to environmental factors and medication. It is important to note that not everyone has the same level of response to treatment. However, given the importance of satisfying and regular sleep patterns in our lives, and the detrimental effect continued sleep disruption can have on our long-term health, it's critical that we continue to change as many of those environmental factors that we can control.
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All content in Sonder's Help Centre is created and published for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice. Always seek the guidance of a qualified health professional.