Obtaining enough sleep is essential for our mental and physical health. Most adults require between 7-9 hours of sleep a night, but a shocking 35% of adults get less than 7 hours. If you fall in this category, you may have tried everything under the sun to help improve your sleep, like managing caffeine, maintaining a consistent sleep schedule, practicing good sleep hygiene and staying off screens. If you believe you are doing everything right, you may be asking “but why can’t I sleep still?”
Sleep disorders affect 50-70 million adults in the US. If you are having serious difficulty getting enough sleep, it's time to think about alternatives that could be hindering your ability to sleep. Find out below about the four main sleep disorders which may be affecting you.
Common sleep disorders in adults
Between 135,000 and 200,000 people in the U.S have narcolepsy. This sleeping disorder is characterized by feelings of extreme tiredness during the day, as well as sudden muscle weakness. These episodes are known as “sleep attacks”, which cause uncontrollable sleepiness and weakness, and often happen during physical activity.
Sleep apnea is a very common sleep disorder which affects as many as 15-30% of males and 10-30% of females. Many people snore whilst they are asleep and we may consider this as just an annoyance, however, snoring may actually be a sign of sleep apnea. People with this sleeping disorder have irregular breathing patterns when they sleep, and may be woken throughout the night by their own loud snoring, gasping or choking sounds. Frequent waking like this interferes with sleep cycles and is likely to make you feel sleepy during the day.
Restless leg syndrome
Restless leg syndrome (RLS) is less common but still affects between 5-10% of adults and 2-4% of children. This disorder does what it says on the tin - causes feelings of restless legs. RLS symptoms include uncomfortable aches or pains and an unpleasant creeping sensation that is only relieved when you move your legs. This can make falling asleep difficult, as you may feel the constant need to walk or kick your legs to stop the restless feeling.
Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder, with up to 30 % of adults experiencing short-term insomnia, and 10% experiencing it long term. People with insomnia have severe difficulty getting to sleep and staying asleep, and will often feel excessively tired during the daytime. A consistent lack of sleep due to insomnia can lead to mental health problems such as depression, as well as functional impairment during the day.
How to seek help
If you have any of the symptoms above, you may have a sleep disorder which is preventing you from getting to sleep. We recommend speaking to your healthcare provider who can help you get a diagnosis and provide treatment. Often the first step will be to rule out other potential causes, such as medications, substance abuse, or other illnesses. They may then conduct a physical exam and gather information about your symptoms and medical history. Keeping your own sleep diary can be a helpful tool to understand your symptoms better.
If your doctor thinks you have a sleep disorder, you may be referred to a sleep specialist who will review your symptoms and perform necessary tests. Some common tests for sleep disorders are listed below.
- Polysomnogram: tests for sleep apnea by electronically transmitting and recording specific physical activities while you sleep. This test can also be done at home by measuring your breathing while you sleep.
- Electroencephalogram: assesses electrical activity in the brain and detects any potential problems that may be interfering with sleep.
- Multiple sleep latency test: helps diagnose narcolepsy by studying daytime napping and is used in conjunction with a polysomnogram at night.
It is important to get your sleep disorder diagnosed so that you can begin to tackle it head on and ensure you get adequate sleep every night. Sleep disorders are often treated with medication and lifestyle changes, which should begin to improve your sleep and quality of life.