Written by eHealth Navigator

What are Sleep Disorders?

At some time, most of us have experienced what it’s like to have trouble falling asleep, to lie awake in the middle of the night, or feel sleepy and fatigued during the day. However, when sleep problems are a regular occurrence or when they get in the way of your daily routine and hamper your ability to function you may be suffering from a sleep disorder.

According to the National Institutes of Health, the best amount of sleep for most adults is 7-8 hours per night. Sleep disorders and other sleeping problems cause more than just sleepiness. Poor quality sleep can have a negative impact on your energy, emotional balance, productivity, and health. If you’re experiencing sleeping problems, learn about the signs and symptoms of common sleep disorders, what you can do to help yourself, and when to see a doctor.

Understanding sleep disorders and sleeping problems:

Sleep can often be a barometer of your overall health. In many cases, people in good health tend to sleep well, whereas repeated sleeping problems may indicate an underlying medical or mental health problem, be it minor or serious. Sleeping well is essential to your physical health and emotional well-being. Unfortunately, even minimal sleep loss can take a toll on your mood, energy, efficiency, and ability to handle stress. Ignoring sleep problems and disorders can lead to poor health, accidents, impaired job performance, and relationship stress. If you want to feel your best, stay healthy, and perform up to your potential, sleep is a necessity.

Everyone experiences occasional sleeping problems. So how do you tell whether your sleeping problem is just a minor, passing annoyance or a sign of a more serious sleep disorder or underlying medical condition?  Start by scrutinizing your symptoms, looking especially for the telltale daytime signs of sleep deprivation. If you are experiencing any of the following symptoms on a regular basis, you may be dealing with a sleep disorder.

Is it a sleep disorder?
•  Do you feel irritable or sleepy during the day?
•  Do you  have difficulty staying awake when sitting still, watching television or reading?
•  Do you fall asleep or feel very tired while driving?
•  Do you have difficulty concentrating?
•  Do you often get told by others that you look tired?
•  Do you often react slowly?
•  Do you require caffeinated drinks to keep you going?

If you answered yes to any of these questions you may have a sleep disorder.

Insomnia is the most common type of sleep disorder.  Insomnia is the inability to get the amount of sleep you need to wake up feeling rested and refreshed, is the most common sleep complaint. Insomnia is often a symptom of another problem, such as stress, anxiety, depression, or an underlying health condition. It can also be caused by lifestyle choices, including the medications you take, lack of exercise, jet lag, or even the amount of coffee you drink.

Common signs and symptoms of insomnia include:
•  Difficulty falling asleep at night or getting back to sleep after waking during the night.
•  Waking up frequently during the night.
•  Your sleep feels light, fragmented, or unrefreshing.
•  You need to take something (sleeping pills, nightcap, supplements) in order to get to sleep.
•  Sleepiness and low energy during the day.

Whatever the cause of your insomnia, being mindful of your sleep habits and learning to relax will help you sleep better and feel better. The good news is that most cases of insomnia can be cured with lifestyle changes you can make on your own without relying on sleep specialists or turning to prescription or over-the-counter sleeping pills.

Other common types of sleep disorders:

In addition to insomnia, the most common sleep disorders are sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome (RLS), and narcolepsy.

Sleep apnea:

Sleep apnea is a common sleep disorder in which your breathing temporarily stops during sleep due to blockage of the upper airways. These pauses in breathing interrupt your sleep, leading to many awakenings each hour. While most people with sleep apnea don’t remember these awakenings, they feel the effects in other ways, such as exhaustion during the day, irritability and depression, and decreased productivity.

Sleep apnea is a serious, and potentially life-threatening, sleep disorder. If you suspect that you or a loved one may have sleep apnea, see a doctor right away. Sleep apnea can be successfully treated with Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP), a mask-like device that delivers a stream of air while you sleep. Losing weight, elevating the head of the bed, and sleeping on your side can also help in cases of mild to moderate sleep apnea.

Symptoms of sleep apnea include:
•  Loud, chronic snoring
•  Frequent pauses in breathing during sleep
•  Gasping, snorting, or choking during sleep
•  Feeling unrefreshed after waking and sleepy during the day, no matter how much time you spent in bed
•  Waking up with shortness of breath, chest pains, headaches, nasal congestion, or a dry throat.

Restless legs syndrome (RLS):

Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is a sleep disorder that causes an almost irresistible urge to move your legs (or arms). The urge to move occurs when you’re resting or lying down and is usually due to uncomfortable, tingly, aching, or creeping sensations.

Common signs and symptoms of restless legs syndrome include:
•  Uncomfortable sensations deep within the legs, accompanied by a strong urge to move them.
•  The leg sensations are triggered by rest and get worse at night.
•  The uncomfortable sensations temporarily get better when you move, stretch, or massage your legs.
•  Repetitive cramping or jerking of the legs during sleep.


Narcolepsy is a sleep disorder that involves excessive, uncontrollable daytime sleepiness. It is caused by a dysfunction of the brain mechanism that controls sleeping and waking. If you have narcolepsy, you may have “sleep attacks” while in the middle of talking, working, or even driving.

Common signs and symptoms of narcolepsy include:
•  Seeing or hearing things when you’re drowsy or starting to dream before you’re fully asleep.
•  Suddenly feeling weak or losing control of your muscles when you’re laughing, angry, or experiencing other strong emotions.
•  Dreaming right away after going to sleep or having intense dreams
•  Feeling paralyzed and unable to move when you’re waking up or dozing off.

Shift work sleeping problems:
Shift work sleep disorder is a circadian rhythm sleep disorder that occurs when your work schedule and your biological clock are out of sync. In our 24-hour society, many workers have to work night shifts, early morning shifts, or rotating shifts. These schedules force you to work when your body is telling you to go to sleep, and sleep when your body is signaling you to wake.  While some people adjust better than others to the demands of shift work, most shift workers get less quality sleep than their daytime counterparts. As a result of sleep deprivation, many shift workers struggle with sleepiness and mental lethargy on the job. This cuts into their productivity and puts them at risk of injury.

There are a numbers of things you can do to reduce the impact of shift work on sleep:
•  Take regular breaks and minimize the frequency of shift changes.
•  When changing shifts, request a shift that’s later, rather than earlier as it’s easier to adjust forward in time, rather than backward.
•  Naturally regulate your sleep-wake cycle by increasing light exposure at work (use bright lights) and limiting light exposure when it’s time to sleep. Avoid TV and computer screens, use black-out shades or heavy curtains to block out daylight in your bedroom.
•  Consider taking melatonin when it’s time for you to sleep.

While some sleep disorders may require a visit to the sleep doctor, you can improve many sleeping problems on your own. The first step to overcoming a sleep problem is identifying and carefully tracking your symptoms and sleep patterns.

Try the following simple changes to your daytime and pre-bedtime routine:
•  Keep a regular sleep schedule, going to sleep and getting up at the same time each day, including the weekends.
•  Set aside enough time for sleep. Most people need at least 7 to 8 hours each night in order to feel good and be productive.
•  Make sure your bedroom is dark, cool, and quiet. Cover electrical displays, use heavy curtains or shades to block light from windows, or try an eye mask to shield your eyes.
•  Turn off your TV, smartphone, iPad, and computer a few hours before your bedtime. The type of light these screens emit can stimulate your brain, suppress the production of melatonin, and interfere with your body’s internal clock.
•  Make your bed each day.
•  Minimize the number of pillows on the bed while you sleep.

The cure to sleeping problems and daytime fatigue can often be found in your daily routine.  Making simple lifestyle changes can often help ensure you get the sleep you need.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 17 September 2013 1:52PM