Aaah, a good night’s sleep…it’s something we all long for but a surprisingly few people actually get. In fact, an estimated 50-70 million U.S. adults have a sleep or wakefulness disorder. According to Dr. Muhammad Syed, a Sleep Medicine Specialist at Baystate Medical Center, the impact of all those sleepless nights is more than just feeling drowsy.
The high cost of too little sleep
“Studies show that adults who sleep less than six hours a night are more likely to suffer from a number of chronic conditions including diabetes, obesity, and coronary heart disease and are more likely to suffer a stroke than those who sleep 7 to 9 hours per night,” says Syed. “In addition, people who don’t get enough sleep are 10 times more likely to suffer with depression and 17 times more likely to have anxiety.”
Syed also notes that poor sleep habits can also have a negative impact on performance at work. “Lack of sleep can affect your ability to remember and process information and can slow your reaction time, which depending upon your line of work or if you’re driving a car, can put your safety at risk.
The science behind sleep
One of the keys to addressing sleep disorders, says Syed, is understanding how it works.
He explains, “There are really two processes at work that create our sleep rhythm. The first is the production of a compound called adenosine that is responsible for making us fall asleep at night. The level of adenosine in your brain slowly builds throughout the day. By evening, there’s a sufficient amount to make you sleepy. While you sleep, it breaks down so that by morning you wake feeling refreshed and the whole process starts over again.
“The other important influence is your circadian rhythm,” says Syed. “This is like an internal clock that runs continuously runs in the background keeping essential bodily functions — including the sleep-wake cycle — on track. Together, the adenosine production and circadian rhythms drive us to sleep and wake. Sleep disorders most often occur when these processes are interrupted.”
Recognizing common sleep disorders
A ‘sleep disorder’ is any one of a number of conditions that affect sleep quality, duration, and how well you function during the day. While there are over 100 different types of sleep disorders, the most common ones are insomnia, restless leg syndrome, obstructive sleep apnea, and narcolepsy. The symptoms, causes and treatments for each vary dramatically.
Here’s quick look at each:
Symptoms: difficulty falling asleep, frequently waking up during the night, and waking too early
Potential causes: napping, viewing screens late into the day, stress, physical conditions including restless leg syndrome, caffeine, nicotine, or alcohol
Treatments: establishing a sleep routine, relaxation techniques, lifestyle changes, behavioral therapy
Restless Leg Syndrome
Symptoms: overwhelming urge to move your legs when at rest, particularly at night
Potential causes: iron deficiency, medication, nerve damage, pregnancy, the use of alcohol, nicotine or caffeine
Treatments: lifestyle changes, medication changes, iron supplements
Obstructive Sleep Apnea
Symptoms: loud snoring, excessive daytime sleepiness, observed episodes of stopped breathing during sleep, abrupt awakenings accompanied by gasping or choking, waking with a dry mouth or sore throat, morning headache, difficulty concentrating during the day.
Potential causes: narrowed airway, excessive weight, smoking, use of alcohol or sedatives
Treatments: CPAP machine, dental device, weight loss, sleep repositioning, surgery
Symptoms: excessive sleepiness, sleep attacks, sleep paralysis, hallucinations, loss of muscle control
Potential causes: genetics, lack of hypocretin in the brain
Treatments: medication, lifestyle changes.
Diagnosing and treating sleep disorders
One of the best ways to diagnose a sleep disorder is through a sleep study.
Baystate Sleep Medicine, the largest sleep center in western Massachusetts, offers a variety of studies for diagnosing sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, and more. Conducted in comfortable, private, home-like rooms, studies are non-invasive and, depending upon your condition, may be conducted in less than an hour during or may require an overnight stay.
Syed notes, “A proper diagnosis is key in helping patients. A diagnosis will determine the cause of the problem and then a treatment can be assigned. Very often it’s a matter of simply resetting one’s sleep cycle. Fixing that is not difficult but, again, you have to understand what’s creating the problem. In cases of apnea, a diagnosis from a sleep study will determine how serious the problem is and point to the proper type of treatment.”
The goal of all treatment, Syed says, is improving a person’s overall health by improving the quality of their sleep.