Medically reviewed by Dr. C.H. Weaver M.D. 2/2021
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.
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.
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.
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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.
Drinking Alcohol Before Bed
Some people believe that an alcoholic drink before bed, or “night cap,” helps them fall asleep. While you may fall asleep faster, alcohol may disrupt your sleep later in the night, making that night cap a risk for poor-quality sleep. The bottom line: avoid alcohol late in the evening.
Your bedtime routine can improve your chances of falling asleep easily and enjoying good-quality sleep. Behaviors intended to help you relax and wind down in preparation for sleep are known as “sleep hygiene.” The following is a list of sleep hygiene tips:
- Go to bed at the same time each night and wake up at the same time each morning.
- Make sure that your bedroom is quiet and dark and provides a relaxing environment (for example, keep the room free of clutter). The bedroom temperature should neither be too warm or too cold; some people sleep best in a room that is slightly cool.
- Your bed should be comfortable and used only for sleep and intimacy. Do not read or watch TV in bed and keep computers, TVs, and other gadgets out of the bedroom.
- Physical activity during the day may help you sleep, but don’t exercise within a few hours of bedtime, as this can make it difficult to fall asleep.
- Don’t eat large meals before bedtime. You may find, however, that a light snack close to bedtime helps you sleep.
- Avoid all caffeinated beverages as well as chocolate and tobacco late in the day (all three substances are stimulants).
- Avoid alcohol before bedtime.
- Avoid drinking too many fluids before bed to decrease your need to visit the bathroom during the night. You may find, however, that a small cup of herbal tea at bedtime helps you relax.
- Avoid using bright lights in your home before bedtime.
- Don’t work before bedtime and avoid any computer use.
- Find a way to relax before you want to fall asleep. Examples include taking a warm bath, listening to calming music, or light stretching.
- If you wake during the night, try lying still and relaxing in order to fall back to sleep. If, however, you’re still awake after 20 minutes, leave your bed, sit somewhere comfortable, and read or do something similarly quiet and calming until you feel sleepy again.
- Avoid taking naps after 3 p.m. Late-afternoon naps can make it harder to fall asleep at night. When you do nap, do so for no more than an hour.
- Narcolepsy. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute website. Available at: http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/dci/Diseases/nar/nar_what.html. (Accessed October 2020).
- Sleep Apnea. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute website. Available at: http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/dci/Diseases/SleepApnea/SleepApnea_WhatIs.html.(Accessed October 2020).
- Restless Leg Syndrome. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute website. Available at: http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/dci/Diseases/rls/rls_WhatIs.html. (Accessed October 2020).
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute website. Available at: http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/public/sleep/healthysleepfs.pdf. (Accessed October 2020).
- Sleep and Sleep Disorders: A Public Health Challenge. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/sleep/. (Accessed October 2020).