There are at least a dozen theories of the function of sleep and the latest theory of why we sleep is that during sleep we have a system in our brain called the glymphatic system. It essentially cleans the brain tissue out of all kinds of toxins and byproducts. This system is exclusively effective and active during the night. It does not function during the daytime. What ends up happening is that if you do not get a sufficient amount of sleep, it’s been shown in laboratory animals, that the unnecessary metabolites and proteins tend to accumulate which may become the building block for Alzheimer’s and dementia. So, cleaning the brain out of its toxins during the night is one intriguing theory that explains part of the reason why we sleep.
How do I know I have a sleep disorder?
For some people, it is just an inability to get enough sleep at night. They don’t necessarily have a sleep disorder but the amount of time they have available to sleep. If someone were wondering if they have a sleep disorder or not, part of the indication might come from a bed partner, particularly for a condition like obstructive sleep apnea where they are observed by their bed partner to snore loudly. They may be told that they stop breathing at night or that they gasp for air. These are the things that patients with sleep apnea have no awareness these events occurring. They might occur hundreds of times per night.
How might insufficient sleep affect my health?
Most people are not aware of how important it is to get enough sleep and there are a lot of studies that have looked at the health consequences of insufficient sleep. About 30% of adults sleep no more than 6 hours a night and the data support the need for a minimum of 7 to 8 hours of sleep nightly. It Is not just being tired as a consequence of not getting enough sleep. There are significant health consequences. These can also affect the cardiovascular system.
People who don’t get enough sleep have increased activation of the sympathetic nervous system, which is your flight or fight response. That can cause your blood pressure to run higher and increase the risk for other complications. There is also an increased risk of diabetes. There can be mood disturbances associated with insufficient sleep. The increased risk of depression. There may be an increased ability to tolerate pain. So, people with chronic pain syndromes may find that they require more medications for their pain if they’re not getting sufficient sleep. Some data also suggest early mortality as a result of insufficient sleep.
There are several sleep disorders and conditions, some of the most common ones include insomnia, restless leg syndrome, sleep apnea, and narcolepsy. Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder and is characterized by difficulty in falling asleep, staying asleep, and or early morning awakenings. Individuals with insomnia with unrefreshed upon waking and feel fatigued during the day. Insomnia can be acute or chronic. The most effective approaches to insomnia include good sleep hygiene habits and cognitive behavioral therapy.
Restless leg syndrome is a sensory disorder characterized by an irresistible urge to move one’s legs and sometimes arms due to uncomfortable sensations. The sensations are usually worse at rest, especially when lying or sitting well at night, which is why it can cause significant sleep disruption. Effective treatments, which should always be discussed with a family doctor, can include the reduction or elimination of caffeine, nicotine, or alcohol. Supplementation of iron, folic acid, magnesium, and calcium, exercise and stretching, and warm baths or cold compresses.
Sleep apnea as described above in the article is a life-threatening disorder. Treatments include weight loss, minimization of alcohol, and treatment by certain machines designed specifically for this which provide positive airway pressure during sleep.
Narcolepsy is a rare sleep disorder characterized by frequent periods of sleepiness, both gradual and sudden sleep attacks, sometimes associated with cataplexy or muscle weakness. These sleep attacks can occur at any time throughout the day. Treatment includes stimulant pharmacotherapy and stress management. Lifestyle adjustments such as avoiding caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine, regulating sleep schedules including scheduled daytime naps, typically 10 to 15 minutes in length, and establishing a regular exercise and meal schedule may also help to reduce symptoms.
If you think you may have one of these conditions, speak to a healthcare professional about getting an official diagnosis and making an effective treatment plan.