Sleep Disorders


There are many kinds of sleep disorders that can make it difficult for you to fall asleep, stay asleep, enjoy good-quality sleep, or feel alert during the day. Regardless of the nature of your sleep disorder, if you’re not getting adequate sleep, you’re likely to feel sleepy during the day, have trouble carrying out your daily activities and responsibilities, and be a greater risk for illness. In short, poor sleep adversely affects your overall well-being—physically and emotionally, as well as your personal and work life.

Sleep Disorders in Depth

Types of Sleep Disorders

The following is a list of some of the most common sleep disorders:

  • Insomnia: Insomnia is characterized by trouble sleeping. This includes trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, falling back to sleep after waking, and having good quality sleep.
  • Narcolepsy: Narcolepsy involves excessive daytime sleepiness, sometimes to a degree where falling asleep is irresistible. Sudden muscle weakness is also a characteristic of narcolepsy. Narcolepsy may be caused by low levels of the chemical hypocretin, which helps control levels of wakefulness; most people with narcolepsy have low levels of this chemical. An episode of narcolepsy, or “sleep attack,” can occur at any time—often when least expected, such as while walking or during other physical activity.
  • Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS): People with RLS describe their symptoms as creeping, crawling, pulling, tingling, and itching sensations in their legs, which are often accompanied by aches and pains in the legs. These sensations cause an urge to move or kick the legs, which relieves the unpleasant feelings, but moving the legs together with the sensations of RLS makes falling asleep difficult.
  • Sleep Apnea: Snoring and periodic gasping or snorting noises during sleep may be signs of sleep apnea. These behaviors are signs of pauses in breathing or shallow breathing during sleep, which interrupts sleep. As a result, sleep apnea can cause excessive daytime sleepiness. In sleep apnea, irregular breathing is the result of a collapsed or blocked airway (the most common cause) or a failure of the brain to send the correct signals to control breathing.

How Much Sleep Do We Need?

The amount of sleep we need to be alert, maintain health, and feel refreshed changes as we age, according to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF). For example, NSF guidelines recommend 10 to 11 hours of sleep for teens and seven to nine hours for adults.

Medication and Treatment

Medication and treatment for a sleep disorder will depend on the type of disorder you have. For most people, medication is most effective when combined with healthy lifestyle changes. (See “Bedtime Routine” for more about behaviors that support good-quality sleep.) Some people see their family doctor for treatment of their sleep disorders, and others—generally those with more severe disorders—see sleep specialists at clinics or centers that specialize in sleep disorders.

Sleep aids, or medicines used to help you sleep, are available by prescription or over the counter (OTC). If you use OTC sleep aids, including herbal remedies and supplements, be sure to discuss these with your doctor; some OTC sleep aids may have risks or side effects or interact negatively with other medication you are taking.

Here are examples of medications and treatments used for different sleep disorders:

  • Under your doctor’s supervision, you may use prescription or OTC medications to treat insomnia. While there are risks associated with both prescription and OTC sleep aids, including grogginess and other side effects, prescribed medications should be taken with extra caution, as they can be habit forming and possible side effects are more severe (allergic reactions and eating or driving while sleeping, for example).
  • For narcolepsy, stimulants may be prescribed to help you stay alert during the day, and sleep aids may be used to help you sleep at night. As well, a medicine can be used that helps compensate for low levels of hypocretin, the chemical in the brain that helps you stay awake. Medicines used to treat depression may also be helpful.
  • Treatment for sleep apnea is aimed at restoring regular breathing during sleep and relieving symptoms, such as snoring and daytime sleepiness. Treatment may involve the use of mouthpieces and breathing devices as well as surgery. A mouthpiece adjusts your lower jaw and tongue to keep your airways open during sleep; breathing devices (used during sleep), such as a continuous positive airway pressure machine, gently blow air into your throat through a mask over your mouth; and surgery can widen breathing passages to enable regular breathing.
  • For RLS, avoiding things that trigger symptoms can help you manage the disorder. Common triggers include certain prescription and OTC medicines (talk with your doctor before discontinuing or altering medications), alcohol, and tobacco. Doctors use medicines to treat RLS that are used to treat Parkinson’s disease. Depending on the type of medication, they work by making dopamine, the chemical in the brain that controls movement, or simulating the effects of dopamine.

Healthy Lifestyle

In addition to helping you feel alert, energetic, and focused during your day, sleep is also a critical part of an overall healthy lifestyle. Sufficient and good-quality sleep can help reduce your risk of several chronic diseases and conditions and can also help you management these conditions. For example, inadequate or poor sleep may increase the risk of development and worsen outcomes of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and depression. Sleep is also needed for your body to produce valuable hormones, such a growth hormone, which fuels growth in children and helps people of all ages build muscle mass and repair cells and tissues. As well, sleep supports immune function, strengthening your ability to fight infection.

The amount and quality of sleep you get also impacts your emotional well-being. With good-quality sleep, you’re less likely to become depressed or feel irritable. Maintaining good spirits can help you enjoy your relationships and activities and help you carry out responsibilities.

Driving While Drowsy

Driving can be very dangerous when you’re excessively sleepy. You’re more likely to fall asleep at the wheel, and your reaction time may be slowed—both increase your risk of a car crash. If you’re having trouble keeping your eyes focused, are yawning continually, or have trouble recalling the last several miles you just drove, you’re too tired to drive safely. Try pulling off the road, finding a safe place to park, and taking a 15- to 20-minute nap.