Do you ever lie awake at night, feeling as though you may be the only one in the world who is having trouble sleeping? Do you drag yourself out of bed and through your day, thinking that sleep deprivation is just part of life?
Well, you most certainly are not alone if you are having trouble sleeping. Statistics show that the country is tired! The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, estimates that over 35% of U.S. adults fall short of the recommended average of at least 7 hours of sleep per night. The American Sleep Association, or ASA, reports that 37.9%, or nearly 2 in 5, adults admit to accidentally falling asleep during the day within the past month.
The ASA also estimates that 50 to 70 million U.S. adults have a sleep disorder, also known as a sleep-wake disorder. Nearly half of Americans snore – a problem that could range from annoying to partners to indicative of sleep apnea or higher risk for atherosclerosis – and 25 million U.S. adults have sleep apnea.
The good news is that sleep deprivation is not inevitable. Sleeping problems may be common, but that does not mean you have to succumb to all of their effects.
This guide presents the main types of sleeping disorders and what to do when you can’t sleep. You can also learn what you can do if you are having trouble sleeping. Options range from seeing a medical professional to taking a look at your own sleep habits. Plus, there is a good chance that a convenient app, such as Lark, can give you insights on your sleep patterns, and healthy sleep habits.
What Are Sleep Disorders?
Sleep disorders are conditions that interfere with your ability to get a sufficient amount of high-quality sleep. They include trouble falling asleep, trouble staying asleep, and inability to stay awake when you want to during the day.
Sleep disorders can stem from poor habits around bedtime, or they can be the result of other factors. Examples include:
- Mood or anxiety disorders.
- Alcohol abuse.
- Respiratory conditions, such as asthma.
- Discomfort, such as pain or indigestion.
- Medication use.
Effects of Sleeping Problems
Inability to sleep can lead to consequences that can be anything from unpleasant to downright dangerous and unhealthy. If you can’t sleep as much as you need to most nights, it is a good idea to get help to figure out how to get the shuteye you need.
Impaired Energy and Alertness
You are almost sure to know firsthand how sleep deprivation feels. You may have reduced energy, which makes getting through the day harder and often less enjoyable. Your ability to focus diminishes, and you may find yourself nodding off. Concentrating and remembering were the top two daily activities that people reported having trouble with due to lack of sleep, according to the CDC.
Be honest, now: last time you were short on sleep, how well did you focus during your afternoon meeting? Did you remember much of it afterwards? And, did you have to fight the urge to nod off during it?
Unintentional Weight Gain
Intuitively, it might make sense that sleeping less would help with weight loss, since you would be spending less time lying in bed and more time up and about, presumably burning more calories. That is not the case. Here are some ways that sleep deprivation can increase risk for weight gain, as described by the Harvard School of Public Health and a review article in the journal, “Obesity (Silver Spring).”
- More hunger: You may have higher levels of ghrelin, which is a hormone that increases hunger, and lower levels of leptin, which is a hormone that lets you know that you are satisfied.
- More time to eat: You might burn a few more calories during those late-night hours while awake compared to if you were sleeping, but having even a few extra peanuts is likely to outweigh the extra calorie burn. Regularly having a more typical late-night snack can pile on the pounds.
- Poorer choices: Sleep-deprived people crave more high-fat, high-carbohydrate, high-sugar foods, and have less ability to resist them. That means you are more likely to choose the pizza over the salad, and you are not going to stop at one potato chip.
- Lower metabolism: your body temperature may drop so you burn fewer calories throughout the day.
- Less energy: if you are too tired to exercise or even move around much during the day, you will burn fewer calories.
The ASA estimates that being short on sleep could account for as much as 5% of obesity!
Chronic Health Conditions
Sleep affects your physical and mental health in many ways. Being short on sleep is linked to increased risk for the following conditions.
- Type 2 diabetes.
- Heart disease.
- Depression and other mood disorders.
Vehicular and Other Accidents
Not surprisingly, given the importance of sleep for concentration and coordination, lack of sleep has been linked to accidents on the roads and in the workplace.
- Nearly 1 in 25 drivers has admitted to falling asleep at the wheel within the past month.
- Sleep deprivation is responsible for 1,550 fatalities annually in the U.S.
- Sleep deprivation costs about $54 million per year in lost productivity, plus 5 extra missed days of work per worker with insomnia.
Types of Sleep Behavior Disorders
There are many types of sleep behavior disorders. They can lead to difficulty falling or staying asleep, and they can be chronic or acute. They all can make you feel tired, but they can all be prevented, treated or managed. Examples include rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep disorder, circadian rhythm disorders, insomnia, and sleep apnea.
Rapid Eye Movement Sleep Behavior Disorder
You go through different stages when you sleep. Non-rapid eye movement (non-REM) sleep comprises up to 80% of normal sleep, while the rest is REM sleep. During REM sleep, your brain remains as active as it is while you are awake, but your muscles are paralyzed, your blood pressure rises, and your eyelids move rapidly.
Rapid eye movement sleep behavior disorder, also known as RBD, happens when your muscles do not get paralyzed. So, it makes sense that REM sleep behavior disorder symptoms include physically acting out your dreams, since the
The condition is often linked to neurodegenerative conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease, although it tends to appear years before diagnosis of a neurodegenerative condition. Acute RBD can result from withdrawal from alcohol, certain antidepressants, or other medications.
Treatment for REM sleep behavior disorder can include putting up safeguards to keep yourself and your partner safe as you act out your dreams, sometimes vigorously, and taking medications.
- Put up barriers on the side of the bed or padding on the floor nearby.
- Consider sleeping separately from your partner until your symptoms go away.
- Melatonin is a generally safe dietary supplement that is also natural sleep hormone in your body. It can reduce symptoms.
- Clonazepam is a prescription medication that is a common REM sleep behavior disorder treatment. It is also an anti-anxiety medication.
Circadian Rhythm Sleep Disorders
Your circadian rhythm is your body’s internal clock. It regulates sleep and wake cycles, as well as other biological patterns such as the regular increase and decrease of various hormone levels. For most people, the circadian rhythm is linked to the natural light and dark cycle of the 24-hour day and night, although the human cycle is typically slightly longer than 24 hours.
Disruptions to your regular cycle can lead circadian rhythm sleep disorders. Causes can include:
- Taking certain medications.
- Working night shifts or changing your work schedule frequently.
- Changing time zones.
- Changing your sleep schedule by staying up late or sleeping in for a long time.
- Experiencing mental health issues or medical problems.
Circadian rhythm sleep disorder symptoms reflect the difficulty your body has staying in sync with the clock. You might feel alert at night and sleepy during the day. You might have trouble falling asleep when you go to bed, and feel groggy when it is time to get up.
There are several types of circadian rhythm sleep disorders, as outlined in the journal, “Neurologic clinics.”
- Jet lag occurs when you change time zones, and your body has difficulty adjusting to the new time zone. You might have difficulty falling asleep if you have traveled west and set the clock back at least 2 hours. You could have trouble getting up on time if you have traveled east and set the clock ahead at least 2 hours.
- Delayed phase sleep disorder (DPSD) is a condition in which you are not tired until late at night, and you have trouble getting up the morning. People with DPSD might be seen as night owls.
- Advanced phase sleep disorder (APSD) is a condition in which you get tired early in the evening, and wake up early in the morning, such as between 1 and 5:00 a.m.
- Irregular Sleep-Wake Rhythm (ISWR) happens when you have an irregular rhythm, and cannot predict sleepiness and wakefulness well.
- Non-24 Hour Sleep Wake Disorder happens when the circadian rhythm tends to be too long. This is common among individuals who are blind and do not have the trigger of natural daylight for production of melatonin.
Circadian rhythm sleep disorder treatment includes improving sleep hygiene, such as following a regular schedule. Other treatment approaches include:
- Using melatonin to normalize the circadian rhythm.
- Using a bright light before bed for APSD, or in the morning for DPSD.
- Getting more natural light and socializing during the day for ISWR.
Other Sleep Disorders
There are many other sleep disorders that lead to difficulty sleeping and the consequences of sleep deprivation, including grogginess during the day and health risks.
Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder, according to the ASA. It refers to trouble falling or staying asleep, or the tendency to wake up too early in the morning – in other words it is an inability to sleep properly. About 1 in 10 adults have chronic, or secondary, insomnia, while 3 in 10 have acute insomnia. You may be able to overcome acute insomnia with behavior changes, such as better sleep hygiene. Chronic insomnia might require medical evaluation, and often intervention to treat the underlying cause.
The partner of someone with sleep apnea may know it as an annoying, loud nighttime nuisance, but the truth is that sleep apnea can be dangerous. With sleep apnea, the flap of tissue at the back of your throat can close and stop breathing for seconds or longer. Your brain is notified to wake up so you can resume breathing. This can happen many times per night and prevent you from getting the rest you need. You are likely to be exhausted all the time.
Up to 1 in 5 women have sleep apnea, and 1 in 3 or 4 men have it. Since obesity is a major cause, losing weight can help. Also, a continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP, machine to hold open your airways is a common treatment.
Narcolepsy may seem comical if you hear about it from someone else, but it is anything but funny if you experience it. It is a sleep-wake disorder in which you have trouble staying awake for normal periods of time. Instead, you might nod off in the middle of the day, even while engaged in activities such as talking to people. Other symptoms include cataplexy, or loss of muscle control, leading to trouble moving or speaking, and hallucinations, since you might have dreams as you are just falling asleep or waking up.
There is no cure for narcolepsy. Your doctor might prescribe medications, such as stimulants to keep you awake. At home, you can improve your sleep hygiene, such as having a regular bedtime and pre-bed routine, and being sure to get enough exercise during the day.
Periodic Limb Movement Disorder and Restless Legs Syndrome
Periodic limb movement disorder, or PLMD, and restless legs syndrome, or RLS, are two distinct sleep disorders, but most people with RLS also have PLMD. In PLMD, your legs may cramp and move periodically, which disrupts sleep and can make you tired during the day. In RLS, you may have an urge to move your legs just before you fall asleep, which can make it nearly impossible to get enough rest.
They can have unknown causes, or can be caused by medications or conditions including diabetes and anemia. Medications to relax muscles can sometimes help. Other relaxation techniques that could help with RLS include leg massages and application of ice packs to your legs.
Sleep Disorder Quiz
I can’t sleep. Do I have a sleep disorder? If you are wondering whether you may have a sleep wake disorder, you can take a sleep disorder quiz. Several are available online, including the following one presented by WebMD.
- Do you snore loudly and/or heavily while asleep? Yes or No
- Are you excessively sleepy or do you lack energy in the daytime? Yes or No
- Do you have trouble with concentration or memory loss? Yes or No
- Do you fall asleep while driving, in meetings, while reading a book, or while watching television? Yes or No
- Do you often have occasional morning headaches? Yes or No
- Do you sleepwalk, have nightmares, or have night terrors? Yes or No
- Do you suffer from depression or mood changes? Yes or No
- Do you have trouble going to sleep or staying asleep? Yes or No
- Have you experienced recent weight gain or high blood pressure? Yes or No
- Have you been told you hold your breath when you sleep? Yes or No
It takes only minutes to take the quiz, and scoring is simple. If you answered, “Yes,” to one or more of the questions, you may have a sleep disorder, and should consult your doctor. (Note that you should consult your doctor anyway if you think you have a sleep behavior disorder, even if you did not answer, “Yes,” to any of the above questions.)
Medical Help for Sleep Disorders – Sleep Disorder Institutes and Doctors
It is a good idea to seek medical help if you think you may have a sleep disorder or the results of a sleep disorder quiz suggest that you may have one. A sleep disorder institute or clinic is specifically equipped to help diagnosis and treat sleep disorders. There, you can see a doctor who is a specialist in helping patients achieve healthy sleep.
A sleep disorder doctor can assess your sleep disorder to better be able to treat it. The doctor will review your health and sleep history, and any symptoms at night or during the day that may be related to trouble sleeping. The doctor can ask your partner for information about any symptoms that may occur while you are sleeping and that you may be unaware of, such as flailing your arms or snoring.
Your doctor might ask you to record your sleep patterns in a sleep journal. You could also get blood tests to see whether your sleep wake disorder could be related to underlying conditions, such as iron-deficiency anemia.
A sleep study, or polysomnogram, may be warranted if the sleep doctor cannot diagnose your condition from an exam and interviews with you and your sleep partner. A sleep study can also help your sleep disorder specialist make a definitive diagnosis, and possibly rule out other causes of your symptoms. A typical sleep study takes one night.
- You arrive at the center with an overnight bag, as though you were going to stay at a hotel.
- Follow your doctor’s instructions about whether to take your medications as usual.
- You can relax and follow your usual evening/pre-bed routine.
- Technicians will place electrodes on your head to pick up brain activity.
- Your sleep is monitored overnight and you get the results later.
Sleep Disorder Treatments
Sleep-wake disorders can be overwhelming, make life more difficult, and interfere with your health, but sleep disorder treatments can often effectively relieve symptoms or manage or even cure the condition. You may need medications, but an inability to sleep does not always require medication. Often, sleeping problems can go away or become much less severe when you make simple changes.
Medicine for Sleep Disorders
There are many medications for sleep disorders. A doctor may prescribe them based on your particular symptoms and diagnosis. These are some common sleeping pills.
- Melatonin (also available over the counter) to induce sleep and help you stay asleep.
- Benzodiazepine and non-benzodiazepine hypnotics for parasomnia and insomnia.
- Orexin receptor antagonists to counter the wakening effect of the chemical orexin.
- Anti-narcoleptics to increase daytime wakefulness.
Over-the-counter medications are also commonly used. They also can have side effects, interactions with other medications that you take, or a risk of dependency, so it is best to ask your doctor before taking them.
Better Sleep Hygiene
Sleep hygiene refers to sleep habits. Good sleep hygiene can help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep, as well as get better quality sleep. The CDC offers several tips to achieve or maintain good sleep hygiene.
- Stick to a consistent bedtime and waking time, including on weekends.
- Try to get enough sleep during the week so you can avoid sleeping in on weekends.
- Keep your room cool.
- Sleep in a dark, quiet room.
- Use your bed only for sleeping and sex, and not for other activities such as watching TV or reading.
- Avoid electronic devices within 30 minutes of bedtime. This includes phones, televisions, and computers.
A health coaching app, such as Lark, can help you with sleep hygiene by tracking your sleep patterns and reminding you of healthy sleep behaviors.
Healthier Lifestyle Choices
Your lifestyle choices can greatly affect your sleep quality and quantity, too. In general, choices that are good for overall health are also good for sleep.
- Diets higher in healthy foods, such as fish, vegetables, and high-fiber foods, have been linked to better sleep quality.
- Diets higher in saturated fat, low-fiber carbohydrates, and sugary foods and beverages have been linked to poorer sleep quality.
- Regular exercise, but not too close to bedtime, can improve sleep.
- Avoid caffeine within 6 hours of bedtime. Sources include coffee, green and black tea, chocolate, some soft drinks, and some energy and sports drinks.
- Avoid a large meal or alcohol right before bedtime.
- Losing weight if you are obese is a good way to lower risk for obstructive sleep apnea, or manage it if you have it.
The Best Sleep App
The best sleep app supports you in achieving the healthiest sleep you can. It encourages you to adapt healthy sleep behaviors as well as to follow any doctor’s orders that you have for improving sleep. Lark is an app that supports a comprehensive healthy lifestyle that includes smart sleep habits.
The app should monitor and track sleep, providing you with the chance to see your sleep history over recent weeks, as well as pointing out certain patterns. This increases your awareness of your sleep habits. You might, for example, notice how short you are on sleep during the week and therefore you might start to try to get to bed earlier each night. You might discover patterns for times when you feel tired during the day or have trouble falling asleep at night.
The best sleep app does not just track sleep. It also coaches you on improving your sleep. Lark Health Coach, for example, offers advice for getting better sleep on a consistent basis. Your coach reminds you that you are worth it – so getting enough sleep is worth it. And for those times when you just need a sympathetic ear, Lark has empathy for you to help you feel better and get through the day.
Be good to yourself, and get enough sleep. Work through any sleep disorders as much as you can, and get the help you need, whether from a doctor or from a health app. The payoff can be well worth it.