What a beautiful word.
Sleep is not just something restful and enjoyable that many of us wish we could do more of, but it’s actually imperative to life, necessary for survival. Many people don’t realize just how important sleep is, so I’d like to give you a brief overview. I’ll also share with you some information on the major sleep disorders, a group often overlooked in the field of mental health. Then I’ll tell you a bit about how this ruined my life.
Why do we need sleep?
While we may think we are “straight chillin’” during sleep, it turns out our bodies and brains are actually hard at work. On the physical side, your body uses this time to grow muscle, repair tissue, and synthesize hormones; there are also several different brain regions that are active during the various sleep stages. In terms of mental activity, your brain solidifies and consolidates memories while you are asleep. It takes the information you took in throughout the day, and it processes and stores it. Sleep has an effect on the emotions too; there are numerous neurotransmitters and hormones involved that tell the brain’s arousal centers when to be active or slow down. You may be quite aware of the fact that how much rest someone gets can have a large effect on their mood.
So, overall, sleep’s pretty important.
Major sleep disorders
Now knowing all this, perhaps you can imagine (or already know) the difficulties someone may have even in basic tasks if their body doesn’t get enough sleep time to complete all these functions – especially if this happens on a regular basis. Sleep disorders can really have an effect on a person’s everyday life in a variety of ways – trouble concentrating or remembering, irritation, muscle weakness, and general tiredness, to name a few. Here are the four “major” sleep disorders – note, there are many others as well.
Insomnia: This medical term is probably thrown around a little too lightly. True insomnia is debilitating, and is defined by the CDC as “an inability to initiate or maintain sleep”. For some people, this looks like difficulty falling asleep at night; for others, it may be waking up often during the night (and having trouble getting back to sleep), waking too early in the morning, or having sleep that is unrefreshing. People with insomnia often experience excessive daytime sleepiness, and may not be able to stay awake at work/school or have functional impairment during the day. There is also something called chronic psychophysiological insomnia, where the stressor keeping the person from sleeping is actually bedtime; they become conditioned and develop a fear of being unable to sleep, which, of course, only makes it worse (I have had this happen). There are many mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder that often have insomnia as a symptom.
Narcolepsy: This is a neurological disorder that disrupts the person’s control over sleep and wakefulness. They will experience excessive sleepiness during the day and will sometimes have “sleep attacks” as a result of an irresistible urge to sleep. It is also common for them to get sudden muscle weakness in conjunction with strong emotion or surprise. Since there’s no way to know when a sleep attack will occur, the daily activities of someone with narcolepsy can be greatly interfered with.
Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS): The name pretty much says it all: RLS consists of an “irresistible urge to move the legs”, often brought on while laying in bed or sitting for prolonged periods. Sometimes this may also include a “creeping” sensation on the lower part of the leg and/or aches and pains. Since RLS for whatever reason tends to occur in the evening, it can make restful sleep difficult. It has often been associated abnormalities in the neurotransmitter dopamine.
Sleep Apnea: This disorder is often associated with snoring – an annoying but potentially dangerous sleep habit. There are two types of sleep apnea, one of which is obstructive (OSA); this is the more common type and is caused by an airway blockage such as collapse of the soft tissue in the back of the throat. The other type is central (CSA), in which the brain neglects to tell the body to breathe. Sleep apnea can cause sudden waking and gasping during the night, causing interference with restful sleep.
My experience with a sleep disorder
For years now, I have had insomnia. It used to take the form of being unable to fall asleep, but has changed more to waking up often during the night and being unable to fall back asleep.
During college, my inability to get a restful night of sleep led to emotional breakdowns, memory and cognitive problems, exhaustion, and constant tiredness during the day. Nothing I tried to help the issue seemed to work – I tried my best with sleep hygiene and allotting adequate time for sleep, but to no real avail. When it comes down to it, I’m pretty sure the underlying cause must have been – and still is – the severe depression I struggle with. The lack of sleep was soon interfering with my academic and personal life and inhibiting my general functioning.
I was eventually put on a nightly medication with a sedating effect to help me sleep, which did help for a while. Even after that though, I would still have bouts of bad insomnia; many times, and still now, I’m not actually aware of waking up frequently during the night or anything, I just feel completely unrested and still very tired upon waking and throughout the day. At times, like during final exams, I was prescribed stronger sleeping meds designed to “knock me out”.
To this day, I can’t remember the last time I had a really solid, restful, and restorative sleep, much less a natural one. Nor can I remember a time when I wasn’t dragging myself through life because of how tired and drained I am. When I try to sleep without taking the meds, the results are disastrous; apparently I’ve come to rely on them. So what’s going on? I’m not sure I’ll ever really know. Targeting the depression may be a first step, as mental health seems to be expressly tied to sleep health.
Many sleep disorders are quite treatable using medication, therapy or mindfulness, or improved sleep hygiene. Sometimes this means targeting an underlying health issue, and sometimes it means treating the symptoms themselves. Either way, do not underestimate the importance of restful sleep; if you have a concern about your sleep, talk to your doctor.
(2014, December 10). CDC – Key Sleep Disorders – Sleep and Sleep Disorders. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/sleep/about_sleep/key_disorders.html
Sleep Disorders. Retrieved from https://www.sleepfoundation.org/sleep-disorders
(2013, October 20). Sleep Disorders. Retrieved from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/11429-common-sleep-disorders