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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:
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:
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:
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.