What Are Sleep Disorders?

Sleep disorders, also known as somnipathy, affect many people and come in a variety of forms. While it’s common and even normal to occasionally experience difficulties falling asleep and staying asleep, it’s not normal to experience these difficulties on a regular basis. The one thing that all sleep disorders have in common is a disruption of restful sleep. In some cases, they are merely annoyances, while others can become life-threatening. A few common types of sleep disorders are insomnia, bruxism, narcolepsy, night terrors, sleep apnea, and hypopnea. These disorders are discussed in more detail below. Multiple forms of sleep problems can also occur simultaneously.

People often try to treat sleep disorders on their own with medications and sleep aids. However, sleeping pills should not be used without a doctor’s guidance, and these types of medications only treat the symptoms of the sleeping disorder rather than the cause. In some cases, they may even make the disorder worse in the long term.

Causes of Sleep Disorders

Sleep disorders may stem from a number of different causes, but these causes go beyond simply drinking caffeine late at night and being unable to fall asleep. For example, a vitamin or mineral deficiency can cause many types of sleep disorders, including insomnia, rapid eye movement behavior disorder, and sleep apnea. However, prolonged stress can also cause the same issues. In some cases, even short periods of stress during traumatic events are enough to create night terrors.

Sleep disorders often appear in conjunction with other health issues. For instance, bruxism, also known as teeth grinding, has been linked with hormonal imbalances and stress. Even food allergies and intolerances can trigger a number of these disorders for some people. Gluten-related allergies and intolerances can cause restless leg syndrome and periodic limb movement disorder in some individuals.

Signs and Symptoms of Sleep Disorders

The first symptom of a sleep disorder is typically fatigue. All sleep disorders involve some level of sleep disruption, generally decreasing the overall restfulness of the night. Additional symptoms vary by the disorder, but common symptoms include:

  • Muscle tension and soreness.
  • Slowed or poor circulation, which can lead to difficulty staying warm.
  • Mental fog and difficulty thinking clearly. This includes difficulties making decisions and slowed reaction time.
  • Vision problems, including blurry eyesight and trouble focusing the eyes.
  • Emotional imbalances, including feeling anxious, irritable, stressed, and simply having more difficulty controlling emotions than usual.
  • Hair loss.
  • Weight gain and an increased appetite or urge to eat, especially sweet or caffeinated foods and drinks to help boost energy and wakefulness.
  • Specific signs and symptoms related to certain types of sleep disorders. For example, rapid eye movement behavior disorder can result in broken limbs, as can night terrors. For either of these disorders, an attack during the night may lead to striking a wall or tripping and falling down a staircase. Bruxism, on the other hand, typically leads to broken and worn teeth.

Types of Sleep Disorders

There are several types of sleep disorders, each with unique traits, causes, and effects. Knowing what type of sleep disorder you are dealing with can go a long way in helping to manage symptoms as well as find and utilize the most effective treatment program. Your doctor or therapist can assess and diagnose your particular type (or types) of sleep disorders based on your symptoms, and possibly with the assistance of a sleep study. Some common types of sleep disorders are:

Insomnia is simply an inability to fall asleep, stay asleep, or get restful sleep. It can be triggered by stress, health problems, side effects of medications you are taking, other sleep disorders, such as the ones listed below, or psychological disorders such as depression or anxiety. Insomnia may be a short-term problem for many sufferers, and is often treatable through lifestyle therapies rather than medication.

Sleep bruxism is a sleep disorder in which you clench or grind your teeth. This can occur infrequently and may not require treatment; however, for some, it can be so severe that it leads to headaches, flattened or chipped teeth, and jaw problems such as tightness, soreness, and difficulties chewing. It’s associated with stress, aggressive personality types, and smoking. It occurs most often in kids, and children frequently grow out of it without any need for special treatments. However, dental treatment, medications, and psychotherapy may be necessary in more severe cases.

Sleep apnea occurs when your breathing frequently stops temporarily during sleep, jerking you awake. This can actually be life-threatening. The most common type, called obstructive sleep apnea, is caused by tissue in your throat blocking your airway. Though you may awake in the morning without any memory of this, the lost sleep may make you feel tired, irritated, and unfocused throughout the day. Your partner may also be aware of your loud snoring and sudden interruptions in breathing. It’s important to see a doctor to treat sleep apnea, as you may need a positive airway pressure device to help you breathe while you sleep. Alternative lifestyle treatments, such as weight loss and regular exercise, can also be extremely effective for treating obstructive sleep apnea.

Hypopnea, also called “partial apnea,” is characterized by reduced airflow or shallow breathing during sleep. The airway is not fully obstructed, but breathing becomes much more difficult, and after a while, the lack of oxygen will still awaken you to gasp for air.

Narcolepsy is a sleep disorder characterized by “sleep attacks” in the middle of wakefulness, often caused by a strong emotional reaction to something. Narcolepsy is actually caused by a dysfunction that disturbs the brain’s normal control over waking and sleeping. This can be especially dangerous when you are driving or operating machinery. Narcolepsy is commonly linked with depression, and is often treated with a combination of lifestyle changes, psychotherapy, and medications.

Night terrors aren’t just nightmares. They can start with a loud shout or scream, and though the sleeper may sit up in bed and appear awake and terrified, they are still asleep and may fight and thrash around. Night terrors are difficult to awaken people from, and often the person is very confused when they eventually are awakened. Sometimes, night terrors can lead to sleepwalking, fleeing, and aggressive behavior. While more common in children, night terrors can occur in adults, especially those with mood disorders such as anxiety, those with high stress or sleep deprivation, PTSD, or other sleep disorders like restless legs syndrome or sleep apnea. It may be treated with psychotherapy, stress reduction techniques, awakening a few minutes prior to when the event usually occurs, and, occasionally, medications.

Restless Leg Syndrome is a disorder that creates a powerful urge to move. This urge is often concentrated on the legs and/or arms, making it uncomfortable and almost impossible to lie still.

Most sleep disorders grow progressively worse. They can also be the initial signs of other health disorders or psychological issues. Night terrors, bruxism, and rapid eye movement, for instance, are often associated with post-traumatic stress disorder. Sleep apnea, on the other hand, is frequently associated with obesity, diabetes, and heart problems. As the sleep disorder worsens, the other symptoms and disorders typically worsen as well. It’s important to seek treatment as soon as the disorder starts to cause problems.

Treatment for Sleep Disorders

Sleep Disorder Therapy
What is Sleep Disorder Therapy?

When a sleep disorder continues long enough to create difficulty functioning in day-to-day life or additional health issues, it’s necessary to seek professional attention. Many medical and psychological professionals will order a polysomnography (sleep study) to diagnose the kind of sleep disorder you are suffering from, and potentially discover its cause, as well. Multiple factors may be responsible, and treatment may take an extended period of time.

Because of the variety in sleep disorders, you can help your medical team diagnose and treat you by taking notes on your condition. Include information on the foods you have eaten, stressors affecting you, the length and quality of your sleep, and any other information you feel is pertinent. Treatment generally consists of a combination of medical therapies and psychotherapy. Improving your health and lifestyle is also an important factor in treating sleep disorders.

Medications and Sleep Aids
There are plenty of different medications and dietary supplements designed to assist with falling asleep and staying asleep. Some sleep aids can be habit-forming, meaning that as you use them to help you sleep, you can start to rely on them more and more. If you feel that medications are necessary, talk with your doctor about which would be most helpful and least detrimental to you. Sometimes, when there are mood disorders linked to the sleep disorder, antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications can be helpful to improve sleep. Dietary supplements such as melatonin (a hormone naturally produced by your body) and chamomile (an herbal remedy) are helpful to some who struggle with sleep disorders.

Behavioral and Psychotherapeutic Treatments
In cases when sleep disorders are caused by or worsened by anxiety, depression, or PTSD, psychotherapy sessions can be extremely helpful and even essential. Therapy may be beneficial by helping you get to the root of the problem or find strategies to manage stress, negative emotions, and traumatic events that may be contributing to your sleep problems. Through the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) approach, your therapist can help you learn to change actions and thoughts that are harming your sleep. This is a very effective treatment for insomnia and is often considered to be the first line of treatment.

Lifestyle Changes
Sleep disorders are often best managed through lifestyle changes in conjunction with other medical and psychological treatments. Some healthy lifestyle practices that can help with almost any sleep disorder include:

  • Eating a healthy diet, and avoiding foods that irritate your digestive system. If you are concerned that you may have a food allergy or intolerance, you may consider seeing a registered dietitian and keeping a food diary to see if there are any patterns linking what you eat with how you feel and how well you sleep. Eating a balanced diet including plenty of protein, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains is especially important in ensuring that you get the nutrients that you need to sleep well and repair your body while you sleep.
  • Quit smoking and drink less alcohol. Smoking has been linked to sleep apnea, and alcohol use has been linked to night terrors. Most of all, using tobacco and overusing alcohol are detrimental to overall health and can lead to vitamin and mineral deficiencies, which can also contribute to poor sleep.
  • Exercise every day. Getting plenty of exercise, whether it’s walking, running, swimming, biking, weight lifting, yoga, or gardening, has been shown to help people fall asleep more quickly and get better sleep quality.
  • Lose weight if you are overweight. Excess weight can be a factor in sleep apnea, and it can also lead to other health issues such as heart disease that are linked back to sleep disorders, creating a vicious cycle.
  • Learn to relax. Meditation, prayer, yoga, and deep breathing are a few helpful ways to get your body and mind into a relaxed state, ready for a restful night’s sleep.
  • Cut down on—or cut out—caffeine. While caffeine seems essential when you’re exhausted, it may also be worsening your sleep the next night.
  • Keep a regular sleep schedule. Try to go to bed and wake up at approximately the same time each day, including on weekends.

Find a Therapist for Help with Sleep Disorders

With treatment, many people with sleep disorders can start getting a good night’s sleep again. Search TherapyTribe for a psychologist or mental health counselor specializing in sleep disorders and learn more about treatment options. TherapyTribe can connect you with therapists online or to professionals located near where you live.

Related Articles

Symptoms and Treatments for Insomnia: Insomnia is both a physical and a psychological disorder, and it can often be linked to psychological causes like anxiety, stress, and depression. A qualified psychologist or therapist may be able to help you get to the root of the problem and get a restful night’s sleep.

How to Choose a Psychotherapist: If it’s your first time considering therapy, you might be wondering whether or not it would be beneficial for you, and how to choose the right therapist to help you during the most difficult times in your life.