Sleep Disorders: What are they???

Sleep disorders are certain conditions which impact a person's ability to adequately function during the day because of problems related to sleep quality, timing, or duration. They can be related to medical issues or inherited and tend to significantly affect an individual’s physical and/or mental health. The majority of sleep related disorders are characterized by one or more of the following: difficulty with wakefulness during the day, atypical sleep behaviors at night, a sleep-wake cycle imbalance, or trouble falling or staying asleep. If you are having trouble with your sleep or feeling significantly tired during the day, please reach out to your primary care doctor, as they can work with you one on one to diagnose or tackle any sleep-related issues!


A Brief Overview of Some Common Sleep Disorders 

(this list by no means covers all sleep disorder information and only discusses some of the more common disorders. Note: do not use the following as a tool for self diagnosis, but rather to self-educate and to gain understanding of the many ways we all struggle with sleep)


Insomnia can be broadly characterized as persistent difficulty falling and/or remaining asleep even when enough hours are set aside. As you might expect, the condition is usually paired with extreme daytime sleepiness and may be paired with decreased cognitive function, changes in appetite, and moodiness or irritability. For those of you who are feeling like this might sound familiar, keep in mind that being sleep deprived is NOT the same as having an insomnia disorder. All of us have difficulty sleeping from time to time, and may have particularly difficult bouts of sleeplessness in cases of high stress. However, people with insomnia experience continuous sleeplessness, meaning insomnia occurs at least three nights each week for over three months. Many people (college students in particular) simply don’t allot enough time to sleep, and are thus extremely sleep deprived. While this is an important issue, it cannot be labeled as insomnia. Infact, the majority of people with insomnia want so badly to sleep well, but for whatever reason, can’t. 

There are two main branches of insomnia, of which you can suffer from one or both. Sleep onset insomnia occurs when a person has difficulty falling asleep, while sleep maintenance insomnia results from trouble staying asleep. Insomnia impacts certain groups of people more than others. For example, insomnia is twice as common in women, and is suffered in higher numbers by African American and Hispanic American individuals compared to Caucasians. Additionally, diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular diseases may contribute to insomnia.


What Causes Insomnia?

There are many insomnia triggers which may include genetics, psychological health (such as anxiety, depression, or distress), physical health (such as an overactive sympathetic nervous system, dysregulated body temperature, or altered brain patterns), medical issues, or environmental factors (light levels, room temperature, intake of caffeine or substances). Individuals can also experience what is called paradoxical insomnia, which occurs when people report having slept poorly despite getting sufficient sleep according to sleep monitoring.


Sleep Apnea:

Sleep Apnea is a condition that disrupts breathing at night. Folks with sleep apnea will usually snore and may even be prone to choking in their sleep. Obstructive sleep apnea, the most common type of sleep apnea, occurs when a person’s upper airway becomes blocked. Alternatively, Central sleep apnea, which is significantly less common, can happen when the muscles that control your breathing stop functioning due to a loss of brain signaling. This condition can be very dangerous and it is important to contact your doctor if you have any concerns. Treatment for sleep apnea can include shifting sleep positioning, monitoring techniques, oral appliances, CPAP therapy, and in some cases, surgery. 



Most people do experience a moderate amount of fatigue during the day: after all, the stress of life can sometimes be quite draining. But for people with narcolepsy, days can feel extremely tiring, even after a good night of sleep. In fact, the neurological disorder results in periods of sleepiness that are overwhelming and irresistable. Sleep attacks can happen at any time such as during a meal, while driving, or during a conversation. Fragmented sleep at night is another common symptom, which can lead to increased feelings of daytime sleepiness. People with narcolepsy can sometimes have dream-like hallucinations as they are moving between sleep and waking. 


Cataplexy & Sleep Paralysis

Narcolepsy can also be accompanied with a condition called cataplexy, which can be described as a sudden loss of muscle tone which can range from slight drooping to knee buckling or collapse. Strong emotions can trigger cataplexy, leading to the same body paralysis present in REM sleep without actually entering REM sleep (you are awake during cataplexy). Another common symptom of narcolepsy is sleep paralysis. A person usually experiences sleep paralysis when REM sleep lingers, causing the body to be paralyzed while the individual is regaining consciousness. Sleep paralysis does gradually lift, but the condition can be terrifying for many people, and is not specific to narcolepsy. If you are like me and loved the Mysterious Benedict Society as a kid you may be interested to know that while the book remains fabulous, it portrays narcolepsy somewhat inaccurately. In the book Mr. Benedict experiences cataplexy as a result of strong emotions (laughing), and will immediately fall asleep. In reality, folks who have episodes of cataplexy will be conscious in most instances. Narcolepsy sleep attacks are not generally triggered by emotions and are different from cataplexy.


Fun Fact: this disorder is not unique to humans! Other mammals can develop it too!


Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS):

People with restless legs syndrome may experience tingling or crawling sensations accompanied by an irresistible urge to move legs. The sensation tends to worsen when the body is at rest either sitting or lying down, which can lead to frequent wakings at night and difficulty maintaining sleep. These symptoms may worsen when taking certain medication or with caffeine intake. Treatment of RLS usually includes a change in diet, exercise, or analysis of sleep habits. In some cases, use of medications or medical devices are advised. If you believe you have Restless Legs Syndrome talk to a primary care provider to seek further guidance.