How Occasional Poor Sleep Can Become a Sleep Disorder

February 09, 2020

Feeling tired from poor sleep can really put a damper on the day. Lack of energy affects work, our desire to exercise, social life, and overall mental and physical health. Sometimes taking a few days off work and away from other duties to get some much-needed rest can get you back on track. Or maybe you finally sleep better once you have finished a certain project or task and the pressure is off... but are these methods sustainable? 

If time off doesn’t seem to help you, and your sleep patterns continue to suffer, then you may have a sleep disorder, which can become quite serious if not addressed. Knowing the difference between a sleep disorder and occasional bouts of poor sleep can help better address the issue for better, more restful sleep.

What is sleep deprivation?

Everyone feels sleep-deprived at some point in life. But what does sleep deprivation really mean? According to medical experts at Medical News Today, sleep deprivation is when a person doesn’t get enough sleep to make them feel awake and alert. This amount can be different for everyone, but the National Sleep Foundation recommends that most adults sleep for seven to nine hours each night on average for optimal health.

A lack of sleep can lead to negative impacts on health that include:

  • Reduced attention span
  • Less focus on daily tasks
  • Harmful effects on the ability to drive or operate machinery
  • Irritability or depressed mood
  • Increased appetite or food cravings for sweet, salty, or starchy foods
  • Clumsiness
  • Lower sex drive
  • Difficulty learning or remembering things

Over a long period of time, a lack of sleep can also lead to a weaker immune system, increased risk of heart disease, and imbalanced hormones. Also, experts at Johns Hopkins Medicine report that sleep-deprived people are at greater risk for developing health conditions like depression, anxiety, heart disease, dementia, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and colorectal cancer.

Some-sleep deprived people may be missing out on the sleep they need due to long work hours or too many household obligations. However, if there’s no obvious reason you’re not able to sleep, or if time off from such duties doesn’t improve your sleep patterns or the way you feel, then you may have a sleep disorder.

What is a Sleep Disorder?

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine defines a sleep disorder as any condition that causes insufficient sleep. Such conditions may include:

  • Delayed sleep phase disorder
  • Environmental sleep disorder 
  • Insomnia
  • Restless legs syndrome
  • Periodic limb movements
  • Any medical condition that keeps a person from getting adequate sleep, such as chronic pain

According to the International Classification of Sleep Disorders, most sleep disorders involve similar symptoms like:

  • Excessive daytime sleepiness
  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep
  • Abnormal movements, sensations, or behaviors during sleep

According to experts at the Cleveland Clinic, common examples of sleep disorders include sleep apnea, hypersomnia, insomnia, and parasomnia. Also, certain medical conditions like Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, and chronic pain can also cause disordered sleep.

Insomnia is the most common type of sleep disorder. Hypersomnia, on the other hand, occurs when someone experiences excessive sleepiness during the day and falls asleep throughout the day. A common example of hypersomnia is called narcolepsy.

Meanwhile, parasomnia involves abnormal things that can occur to people during sleep which can negatively impact sleep, such as night terrors or sleepwalking. Finally, sleep apnea is an example of a breathing disorder that can impact sleep.

How Can You Improve Sleep?

If you’re sleep deprived, some of the following tips, including some from experts at the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, may help you improve your sleep patterns.

  • Be active each day: Exercise at least 20 to 30 minutes each day, to help you feel more ready to fall asleep when the time comes.
  • Avoid caffeine, nicotine, or alcohol use close to bedtime: Since smoking is a stimulant and is harmful to your health in other ways besides keeping you awake at night, it may be helpful to quit. Visit smokefree.gov for resources to help you quit, or check out our article on natural ways to quit.
  • Create a bedtime routine: Having a routine each day to help you wind down can help improve your sleep. This routine should involve avoiding large meals a few hours before bedtime, stopping screen time on computers, televisions, or phones about one hour before you to to bed, and turning off any bright lights in or near your bedroom. You may also include relaxation breathing, soft music or white noise, as well as diffusing lavender essential oils before bedtime to help you relax before bedtime.
  • Talk to someone about managing stress: If a stressful work or family life is causing you to lose sleep, experts suggest that talking with someone may help. Therapy methods like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help people understand and change the thoughts behind certain behaviors. Such therapy could help someone manage stress and anxiety better, and in turn improve their sleep patterns.
  • Delegate tasks: If a busy schedule at work and/or home is keeping you up at night, then delegating tasks may help. This means saving less urgent tasks for another day or assigning them to someone else. Over time, delegating tasks can lessen your load, reduce your stress, and in turn can help improve your sleep patterns.

How Can You Help Treat Sleep Disorders?

If the above tips don’t seem to help your sleep, then you may have a sleep disorder. It’s important to see your primary healthcare provider to have testing done to see what may be disturbing your sleep.

If you have insomnia, experts from the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School suggest that certain medications can cause insomnia. Such medications include antidepressants, steroids, or certain allergy or cold medicines can increase the risk of insomnia. Also, medical conditions like asthma, sleep apnea, or arthritis can also increase the risk of insomnia.

Therefore, depending on the cause of your poor sleep patterns, the treatment may vary. It may help to combine several sleep hygiene tips and medical treatments to improve your sleep patterns long-term.

Bottom Line

Sleep is vital to the overall health of your body and mind. But sometimes circumstances in life can cause you to not sleep as much as your body needs for optimal health. Therefore, make sure to put sleep near the top of your to-do list every day so you can feel your best. However, if your sleep continues to suffer even after taking steps to improve your it, be sure to visit a qualified healthcare provider to see if a sleep disorder or medical condition may be impacting your sleep health. 

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