Can’t sleep? Four sleep disorders you could be suffering from – key symptoms and causes

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Struggling to sleep can affect everything from your mood, to your appetite and can leave you feeling burnt-out on a daily basis. While the odd restless night is generally nothing to worry about, continual problems could be a sign of an underlying issue – but what could it be? In aid of World Sleep Day, spoke to Consultant Psychiatrist Dr Edward Burns, to find out the most common sleep disorders and the key symptoms you should know.

Sleep disorders are more common than you might think, leaving 67 percent of UK adults with broken sleep and almost a quarter managing no more than five hours a night.

Dr Edward Burns, Consultant Psychiatrist and Clinical Director at independent mental health care provider the Priory Group said: “Sleep disorders are characterised by a frequent inability to achieve good quality sleep.

“If you have a sleep disorder, you will commonly find it difficult to fall or stay asleep and fail to feel refreshed and rested the next day.”

According to the NHS, Insomnia is the most common form of sleep disorder thought to regularly affect one in every three people in the UK – but what are key signs and causes?

Symptoms of insomnia

Insomnia is defined by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine as the “inability to initiate or maintain sleep or to obtain good sleep quality despite adequate opportunity to do so, accompanied by significant daytime consequences of poor sleep”.

Difficulty falling and staying asleep is the most common symptom of insomnia, and there are a number of triggers which could be to blame.

These include:

  • Excessive worry or an anxiety disorder
  • Depression
  • Physical pain
  • Irregular sleep habit

Dr Burns said: “Approximately one in three women suffer from insomnia at some point in their lives, and it also seems to become more prevalent with increasing age.

“Children and adolescents can also be affected by this condition which is frequently associated with mood disorders such as anxiety or depression, as well as other health conditions including stress, jet lag, high caffeine intake, and some medications.”

Among the other most common sleep disorders are sleep apnoea, narcolepsy and restless leg syndrome (RLS), all of which share similar side effects to those associated with insomnia.

Sleep apnoea

This occurs when there are pauses in breathing or when breathing temporarily stops repeatedly for short periods of seconds, or a few minutes during your sleep.

Disruption to your breathing can lead to exhaustion and irritability the following day and is a serious disorder that can be life-threatening if not medically treated.

Something as simple as an uncomfortable bed or even recurrent nightmares can trigger sleep apnoea, which often leads to abrupt awakenings from choking or gasping as well as loud snoring.

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Dr Burns explained: “This describes uncontrollable daytime sleepiness which can cause involuntary and unpredictable periods of sleep when at work, driving, or even in the middle of a conversation.

“This happens due to a problem with the part of your brain regulating sleeping and waking, which would usually respond to triggers such as brightness in order to prepare your body for more socially appropriate waking and sleeping cycles.”

Studies have shown that sleep disorders such as narcolepsy may be due to an inherited problem from birth.

Restless leg syndrome (RLS)

RLS is characterised by the urge to move your legs and sometimes arms during the night and is often brought on by a general feeling of being uncomfortable.

Tingling and aching sensations are common symptoms of RLS, which can disturb you throughout the night.

While each disorder has a number of exclusive symptoms, Dr Burns highlighted that there is a general list of symptoms which are common across these four key conditions.

These include:

  • Difficulty falling and staying asleep
  • Being awake for most of the night, despite wanting and trying to sleep
  • Waking up early in the morning and not being able to get back to sleep
  • Interrupted sleep
  • Waking up tired and feeling un-refreshed
  • Struggling to complete day-to-day tasks due to lack of energy
  • Reduced productivity and performance at work
  • Poor concentration
  • Indecisiveness
  • Daytime drowsiness
  • Irritability and agitation

Who is most at risk of developing a sleep disorder?

Sleep can be affected by a whole host of factors including environmental influences, as well as your general mental and physical health.

These include:

  • Existing mental health problems – depression, stress, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD and anxiety
  • Physical health conditions – respiratory conditions, chronic pain, arthritis
  • Certain medications – steroid medication, medication for epilepsy and blood pressure, some antidepressants
  • Poor sleeping environment
  • Inconsistent sleep routine
  • Napping during the day
  • Shift work – working unsociable hours
  • Smoking cigarettes, especially in the evening
  • Consuming alcohol prior to going to bed
  • Drinking too much caffeine, especially in the evening
  • Recreational drug use
  • Ageing – around half of adults over the age of 65 have symptoms of a sleep disorder

Dr Burns said: “ Ongoing poor sleep can be a huge risk factor for the development of major depressive disorder.

“The risk of feeling depressed and/or anxious (as well as worsening existing anxiety and depression) increases with the severity of insomnia, and so it is important to recognise and sort out sleep problems as soon as they are identified.”

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