Sleep Disorders: Overview

Simply put, a sleep disorder is any condition - physical, mental, or emotional - that prevents someone from getting a good night's sleep. Not all sleep disorders are serious, but left untreated they can have make life very difficult and can lead to serious health problems.

Sleep remains something of a mystery to scientists, though its importance to general health and well-being is an uncontested fact. What we do know about sleep is that the average person needs about eight hours every night, with more for children and young adults and less for seniors.

Healthy sleep occurs in four stages that eventually lead to the REM (rapid eye movement) stage of deep sleep. Cycling through these stages takes approximately one and a half hours to complete. Sleep disorders, of which there are over seventy varieties, interrupt the completion of natural sleep cycles. Generally speaking, sleep disorders can be broken into three basic categories:

  • Lack of sleep
  • Disturbed sleep
  • Excessive sleep

Causes of sleep disorders include genetic inheritance, diet (such as excessive consumption of sugar, caffeine, and alcohol), stress, anxiety, mental illness, and underlying disease, all of which can create disruptions to circadian rhythms (your "biological clock") which is controlled from an area in the brain called the hypothalamus.

Simple sleep deprivation is not usually considered a disorder by itself. It merely indicates that someone has not been getting enough sleep. But sleep deprivation and its symptoms- impaired judgment and memory, slowed reaction times, and difficulties with hand-eye coordination - may be symptomatic of a more significant, and chronic, sleep disorder.

Types of Sleep Disorders

There are five fairly common types of sleep disorder. They are:

  • Insomnia : Trouble falling and remaining asleep on many nights despite adequate opportunity to do so
  • Narcolepsy : The uncontrollable tendency to fall asleep (anywhere from one minute to an hour or more) without warning, multiple times daily
  • Sleep Apnea : Disrupted sleep cycles brought on by common interruptions to airflow during sleep
  • Restless Leg Syndrome : Interrupted sleep due to unpleasant sensations (burning, tingling or crawling) in the limbs when sitting or lying down for prolonged periods
  • Circadian Rhythm Disorder : Disruptions to the body's natural biological and psychological rhythms, which inhibit the ability to fall and remain asleep


There are medical tests that can diagnose sleeping problems. Generally, these tests search for specific signs of a suspected condition. Doctors will assess your medical history, and as a first step may ask you to keep a sleep diary noting daily activities, diet, and sleep habits to identify contributing factors to sleeplessness. Doctors may then use more sophisticated diagnostic techniques, including:

  • Polysomnography - Electroencephalography is used to monitor brain, muscle, heart and breathing activity during sleep. This test is usually conducted in a sleep lab
  • Oximetry - A measurement of the oxygen in the blood during apnea episodes
  • Multiple Sleep Latency Test - This test shows how long it takes for REM sleep to occur in people who spontaneously fall asleep repeatedly


Treatments for sleep disorders vary from condition to condition. First steps usually include improving sleeping habits (also called "sleep hygiene") by reducing caffeine and alcohol intake, improving diet, modifying exercise habits, and implementing sleep-inducing rituals and relaxation techniques.

More clinical treatments include medical devices and medications (stimulants for narcoleptics and sedatives for insomniacs).

If you suspect you suffer from a sleep disorder, talk to your primary care physician explaining your symptoms as well as surrounding circumstances. What is your diet like? Do you exercise? If so, when? Do you work a lot? Dayshift or nightshift? Are you under an unusual amount of stress? By providing your physician with an accurate profile he or she can help you diagnose and treat your situation.

Ultimately sleep is critical to your health and well-being. Lack of sleep can impact you physically, mentally and emotionally. Try to get eight straight hours of sleep each night. And if you can't, talk to someone about it.

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