Sleep: most of us would like to have more of it, few of us get enough of it, and the results of a bad night's sleep can be a lot more serious than simply feeling shitty in the morning — especially in the long term when sleepless nights become a regular occurrence.
Many of us have heard of insomnia, one of the most common sleep disorders going (though it’s not as simple as having trouble getting to sleep once in a while, as is commonly thought).
There’s a good chance, too, that we’ve all had a nightmare at some point in our lives, or maybe even found ourselves sleepwalking in a rare instance (though before you ask: no, waking up with a boner does not count as a sleep disorder per se).
But what about when these sorts of things get out of control and sleep becomes less than a relaxing time for an ongoing sufferer? What is the difference between a bad night’s sleep and living with a chronic sleep disorder?
Though sleep is still one of the most misunderstood (and hence arguably exciting) sciences, there are several sleep conditions we do know about that can cause an ongoing sufferer more than just a feeling of tiredness the next day .
What is a sleep disorder?
A sleep disorder is any condition that causes a change in the way you sleep.
This could mean something that prevents you from sleeping when you would like to, causes a feeling of tiredness or even induces sleep when you’d prefer to be alert.
It can also refer to conditions that reduce the quality of sleep due to excessive movement or irregular breathing during the night.
However a sleep disorder may affect the sufferer, one common thread that runs through nearly every sleep condition is a reduced quality of life. This can be by way of an inability to focus and give important tasks the required attention, or straight-up dangerous outcomes, such as the inability to safely operate a motor vehicle.
Your overall well-being is also very much attached to the notion of a regular sleep cycle that gives you between 7 and 8 hours of unbroken sleep each night. Identifying any conditions that you may have, and getting treatment for them, is extremely important to staying healthy.
Common sleep disorders
Here are 10 of the most common sleep conditions that can make the difference between a good night’s shut-eye and an unproductive day at the business factory.
Insomnia is the inability to get to sleep (or to stay asleep). It’s a bit of a tricky one to define, and some in the medical community have different parameters for what constitutes “acute” insomnia — when the condition gets out of hand and becomes ongoing — but one thing is a dead certain: dealing with it bloody sucks.
Insomnia sufferers differ, and symptoms may include:
- Difficulty falling asleep at night
- Waking up during the night
- Waking up too early
- Not feeling well-rested after a night's sleep
- Daytime tiredness or sleepiness
- Irritability, depression, or anxiety
- Difficulty paying attention, focusing on tasks, or remembering
- Increased errors or accidents
- Ongoing worries about sleep
Having a few bad nights’ sleep here and there is a bummer, but letting it get out of hand and turn into chronic insomnia means more than just feeling tired during the day.
Treatments are available from a GP, and in extreme cases, long-term symptoms can be managed with Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT).
Stopping breathing altogether, even for a short while, sounds like the stuff of nightmares, and with sleep apnoea, it sort of is.
This condition — full name Obstructive Sleep Apnoea — causes the sufferer to stop breathing freely while sleeping due to a blocked airway, and according to the National Sleep Foundation, it affects 2-9% of adults .
It is often triggered by being overweight, smoking, high blood pressure or even ethnic background, and can be an extremely serious (if not fatal) condition, especially if not caught early .
The easiest indicator of sleep apnoea is snoring. Most sufferers are loud snorers whose multiple nightly episodes only end when they are eventually woken by their inability to breathe. However, this is usually only momentary and hence forgotten by sunrise. As such, many people who sleep alone don’t even realise that they have it.
Other symptoms include waking up with a sore or dry throat, restless sleep, regular bathroom trips, forgetfulness, difficulty concentrating, morning headaches, and excessive daytime sleepiness.
Treatments for sleep apnoea vary depending on severity, but it is best managed with a change in lifestyle factors, such as quitting smoking, reducing alcohol intake before bed, lowering caffeine consumption, maintaining a regular sleep schedule, and sleeping on your side.
Easily one of the most terrifying conditions one can suffer — at least the first time it happens — sleep paralysis is a confusing and worrying sleep problem that causes the sufferer to hallucinate while semi-conscious, though without the ability to move or talk.
It’s also one of the more mysterious conditions.
Though it’s estimated that over 7% of the general population experience sleep paralysis at some point in their lives, little is known about what exactly causes it, and there’s no known cure, either .
Sufferers can find solace in the fact that it does tend to come and go, often forever, and once you are aware of it, it is easy to identify an attack, calm down, and go back to sleep, allowing you to wake up normally (albeit probably a bit tired and shaken).
Restless legs syndrome
Not a real thing? Not a sleep condition? Think again. Restless legs syndrome is often confused with the annoying compulsion to tap your foot or shake your leg whilst sitting at your work desk, but it is actually a condition that causes discomfort in the legs to a point where the sufferer has to move them .
As such, this can make both getting off to sleep and going back to sleep when woken in the middle of the night, very difficult.
While snoring is often a harbinger of sleep apnoea, it is also a very common sleep disorder that badly affects up to 30% of men .
While we all know what snoring sounds like — the raspy, harsh bellow that happens when air is inhaled past the relaxed soft tissues in your throat — what isn’t commonly known is how to manage it.
Because nearly everybody snores at some point in their lives, it’s often thought of as an inevitability or occasional disturbance. But chronic snorers do experience broken sleep, not to mention the intrusion it can have on your partner’s night of shut-eye.
As such, ongoing and serious snoring is always worth a check-in with a GP, even if it is more of a nuisance than a serious medical condition.
Festival-goers reading this are probably familiar with the concept of a cheeky gurn, but imagine if that’s what happened when you fell asleep every single night.
Compulsively and involuntarily grinding your teeth is an actual condition called bruxism. And because most sufferers experience it while they are asleep, many might not even know that they are doing this.
Bruxism is a dangerous sleep condition because, though it may not be potentially life-threatening like sleep apnoea, it can lead to severely (and permanently) damaged teeth, as well as strain on the joints and jaw muscles.
One of the more serious conditions on this list, narcolepsy is a chronic neurological disorder that meddles with the brain’s ability to control its natural sleep/wake cycles. It’s a bit like having a faulty on/off switch, but unfortunately managing it is a little more complex than calling out the next available sparky.
In severe cases, sufferers can randomly fall asleep in the middle of important tasks, like driving, eating or during a conversation, making normal day-to-day activities nigh on impossible for some.
There are a few different types of narcolepsy, each of which is a lifelong condition that can be managed with treatment, both through pharmaceutical intervention and lifestyle changes.
However, like many sleep disorders, there is still much to be understood about it.
Formally known as “somnambulism," sleepwalking is a behavioural disorder that causes the sufferer to perform complex behaviours while in a state of extremely deep sleep .
For some, this simply means sitting up in bed and looking around the room, while others go for a walk around the house.
In extreme cases, sufferers have been known to get in the car and drive long distances, all while completely asleep and blissfully unaware of their actions. It’s thought that sleepwalking affects up to 15% of people, and it usually starts in childhood and in rarer instances, carries into adulthood .
A common misconception is that you should never wake a sleepwalker. This is, in fact, the worst advice: though a sleepwalker will initially be hard to awaken due to the depth of sleep under which sleepwalking usually occurs, and extremely confused when you eventually do wake them, it is important to remember that they can cause serious injury to themselves and potentially others if left to roam freely whilst in a trance-like state.
We’ve all suffered a nightmare at some stage; waking up in a cold sweat convinced that a homicidal penguin with a chainsaw is chasing us through the schoolyard during lunchtime (ah, yeah, and you’re naked). But night terrors are a little different to nightmares, in that they occur consistently, and create a genuine sense of terror in their sufferers.
It’s important to note that this is generally a childhood condition that starts before the age of 10. Sufferers who experience night terrors after this age are much more likely to experience symptoms into adulthood.
Symptoms (apart from the obviously horrific feeling of being afraid of deep sleep) can include making noises during the night, tremors, sweats, and sleepwalking.
Night terrors usually go away after some time, but in serious and ongoing cases can be managed by therapy and teaching good sleep habits (though some medications can be prescribed in the worst of cases).
REM sleep behaviour disorder
Though this sounds like a zany ‘90s musical condition that would have you pushing an elephant up the stairs, it is rather a complicated sleep disorder that, with some irony, will probably have you tossing (though not "out punchlines that were never there", per the OG lyrics).
REM sleep behaviour disorder (or RBD), simply put, is where the brain’s natural coding that paralyses your body during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep goes haywire, and you act out your dreams .
It’s almost like the opposite of sleep paralysis.
During an episode of RBD, a sufferer might talk, yell, scream, punch, kick, sit up, jump from bed, move their arms, and grab items (or people) in the vicinity.
As such, it’s one of the more entertaining-sounding sleep problems that actually has some pretty hard consequences for those who live with it, and as such can be a total pain in the arse when it comes to getting a good night’s sleep.
What’s the best treatment for sleep disorders?
As we’ve established here, sleep disorders are many and varied, and while some are more serious than others, they all have their own unique way of making a good night’s sleep a tough concept.
For some, it means the occasional bad day at work, but for others, living with a chronic sleep disorder can be crippling, for both their physical and mental health.
And, because these conditions are different, they all call for different courses of action to make their symptoms dissipate (or at the very least, diminish), allowing a sufferer to live a better life during waking hours and while visiting noddy land.
If you think you may have insomnia or the like, speaking to a qualified and trusted GP is the first simple step to take in order to stop the constant feeling of being tired, start a path to treatment, and get better quality sleep.
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Even if it’s just a little snoring, there’s no such thing as a harmless sleep condition, and though we may not know everything about the science of sleep, one thing the medical community agrees upon is how important getting enough of it is to the overall health and well-being of the human body.