So, how can you tell the difference between the occasional poor night’s sleep and a sleep disorder? And when should you talk to your health care professional about sleep medication? Our sleep experts reveal clear signs to look for and what to do about them. Also, to learn more about sleep, here are the four stages of sleep and why they matter.
You sleep through the night, but don't wake up rested
Adults getting the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep per night should feel rested when they wake up. “If you’re still tired in the morning, that’s a red flag that something may be going on that you’re not aware of while you’re sleeping,” says Rachel Salas, MD, professor of medicine at John Hopkins University in Baltimore. Try improving your sleep quality by working on your sleep hygiene, such as removing electronic devices from the bedroom. This will prevent you from being disturbed by pinging and dinging. Also, dim the lights on any other electronics as light easily throws off our circadian rhythm. If outside noises are waking you up, consider filling the room with white noise or some of these soothing, snooze-boosting sleep sounds. Here's more about what your sleep habits are trying to tell you.
Have you ever dozed off during a monotonous meeting or slipped into sleep in a warm conference room? Dr. Salas says you shouldn’t need to if you’ve had the recommended amount of sleep the night before. “Even if you’re at a very boring lecture or a meeting, you really shouldn’t fall asleep,” she says. “If that’s happening, that’s a sign that something’s going on.” It's time to consult with a sleep doctor—this is a sign that a disorder may be disturbing your slumber.
You snore like a chain saw
Snoring can be a sign of obstructive sleep apnea. When we’re awake, muscles hold the back of the throat open; when we sleep, those muscles relax. Sometimes that muscle relaxation obstructs air from getting from the mouth or nose to the lungs, says Michel H. Silber, MD, professor of neurology at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and co-director of the Center for Sleep Medicine at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. “In some people who snore, that obstruction gets severe enough that the throat shuts altogether,” Dr. Silber explains. “When that happens, not enough air can get into the lungs effectively and the brain responds by waking people up.”
Symptoms of heavy snoring include waking with a “snort” noise or choke in the throat, or a bed partner noticing that their significant other suspends breathing for periods during sleep. Those with sleep apnea can be awoken from the condition multiple times a night, leaving them feeling unrested and sleepy the next day. Moderate to severe sleep apnea can increase a person’s risk for heart attack, stroke, and erectile dysfunction in men, but treatment can help. There’s an oral device from your dentist designed to keep the throat open, a continuous positive airway machine called a CPAP.
You're chronically missing shut-eye
If you’re not consistently getting the number of hours of sleep your body needs to function properly, you could experience symptoms of sleep deprivation, including daytime sleepiness, impaired memory and cognition, depression, and weight fluctuations. Many people are surprised to learn that chronic insufficient sleep is classified as a sleep disorder. The American Sleep Association (ASA) found that 37 percent of 20- to 39-year-olds report falling short on shut-eye. That percentage jumps to 40 percent in adults between 40 and 59 years of age. While sleep quantity is important, the consistency of bedtime and wake time is almost more important for some when it comes to feeling rested. “Even if you get more than enough sleep, if it’s not consistent every day, you can actually feel really tired and function like a sleep-deprived person,” Dr. Salas says. “You have to make sleep a priority—even on weekends and holidays.”
It takes forever to drift off
If you’re staring at the ceiling for longer than 30 minutes before you fall asleep or after waking during the night, it could be due to insomnia, which affects some 30 percent of Americans, according to the ASA. It’s okay to take an over-the-counter sleep aid for one-off bouts of insomnia, like the night before travel or before giving a big presentation at work. But it’s potentially a chronic problem if this happens more than three times a week for at least a few months, and in that case, sleep aids aren’t the solution. And unfortunately, some people may be hardwired for sleep trouble.
“We think that many patients may have a biological vulnerability to develop insomnia at some point in their lives,” says James K. Wyatt, PhD, director of behavioral sleep medicine at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. “Three out of four patients with chronic insomnia can remember something that set it off.” While temporary insomnia may resolve on its own, the first-line treatment for more frequent insomnia is not sleeping pills but cognitive behavioral therapy. This method treats not only the insomnia, but the underlying factors potentially fueling your insomnia. This includes worries and concerns about sleep and an inability to turn thinking off at night.
You have restless leg syndrome
Patients with this chronic condition have a frequent urge to move their legs when at rest. Whether it’s genetic or caused by low levels of iron in the body, restless legs symptoms get progressively intense as the day wears on. “People tend to have their biggest issue with sleep right at bedtime,” says Dr. Salas. “Uncomfortable sensations in their legs can prevent them from falling asleep.” Patients with restless leg syndrome describe feeling as if insects are crawling on their skin, and some experience a pain or tingling sensation. Treatment involves behavioral interventions, exercise, and warm soaks before bed. “Once it reaches a point where those measures don’t work and the iron levels are normal or corrected, there are medications available to help,” Dr. Silber says.
Our muscles are normally paralyzed during REM sleep. But in middle age and beyond, it’s possible to develop a REM sleep behavior disorder in which you spring into motion while dreaming—and don’t remember it the next day. “People with REM sleep behavior disorder lose their paralysis and can, in fact, act out their dreams,” Dr. Silber says. “So they punch, they flail their arms, they kick, they scream, they shout.” Not surprisingly, this condition can cause you—or your partner—to get hurt, and worse, could suggest the possibility of a neurological disorder such as Parkinson’s disease.
Different sleep conditions call for different treatments. “It’s not merely dealing with somebody’s sleep problem, but trying to think about how it interacts within their potential other medical disorders or other aspects of their daily life,” Dr. Wyatt says. See your doctor for proper diagnosis even before trying any sleeping pills, because they can interact with other medications and cause harmful side effects. You'll also want to develop a treatment plan that includes weaning yourself off the pills: They're best viewed as a short-term solution.
If you're reading this, chances are that you've already done a little bit of homework and have determined that your nightly sleep troubles may be a sign of a disorder. You want to get help, but you're having a hard time deciding where to get a sleep study done at.
Just like with any industry, there is going to be those clinics that rise above the rest in professionalism, quality services, and customer satisfaction.
The real challenge is finding out what qualities to look for in a sleep clinic and other tips to help you make an informed decision. Get informed by reading the 12 Tips for Choosing the Best Sleep Clinic.
If you live in Alaska and are looking for a quality sleep clinic to help you with your sleeping problems, you can schedule a free 10-minute phone call with Alaska Sleep Clinic by clicking the link below. If you want to get a feel for the kind of services we provide and check us out in person click here for a list of our facilities and locations.