5 Common Sleep Disorders That May Be Keeping You Up At Night

by Colleen Stinchcombe - June 18, 2018

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We all know how good a restful night of sleep feels. The world feels brighter and clearer, stress is less intense, and even our eating and social habits might improve. There’s good reason for that — sleep is intricately tied to many parts or our lives, from the health of our immune system to our performance at work. Coronary heart disease, cancer, diabetes and weight gain have all been linked to poor sleep, too.

All of which is to say, not getting the sleep you need is no joke. In fact, a new study from the University of Oxford found that cognitive behavioral therapy that focused on improving sleep also reduced incidences of hallucinations and paranoia in patients with mental health issues.

Before you look into disorders, it’s worth examining whether you have what’s called “good sleep hygiene” — essentially if you have good habits that contribute to quality nighttime sleep. The National Sleep Foundation describes these as keeping daytime naps short (30 minutes or less), avoiding caffeine and nicotine close to bedtime, getting regular aerobic activity, getting exposure to natural light and avoiding foods that can cause heartburn and indigestion.

If you think your sleep problems go beyond bad sleep hygiene, these are some of the most common sleep disorders that could be keeping you from getting a good night's sleep.

Sleep apnea

According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, sleep apnea, also known as obstructive sleep apnea, is a disorder where airflow is repeatedly reduced or completely blocked during sleep, typically in the upper part of the airway. If doctors determine that the brain isn’t sending appropriate signals to breathe, it’s called central sleep apnea. There are several potential causes, from a person’s physical structure to medical conditions like heart or kidney failure or neuromuscular disorders.

Doctors screen for sleep apnea by asking you a series of questions about how well-rested you feel, or whether your partner or family member ever hear you snore, stop breathing or gasp during sleep. If you suspect you may have sleep apnea, it’s important to speak with your doctor, as sleep apnea may increase your risk for other medical problems like asthma, certain cancers, heart attack or type 2 diabetes.

Healthy lifestyle changes may be able to help with sleep apnea, like quitting smoking, reducing alcohol intake and keeping you weight within a healthy range. In order to treat your sleep apnea, your doctor may recommend a positive airway pressure (PAP) machine or discuss a mouthpiece or implant to help you breathe more normally at night.


Struggling to fall asleep, stay asleep, waking frequently or poor quality sleep are all associated with insomnia, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Essentially, it’s an issue of not getting enough rest when the opportunity for rest is there, and the lack of rest causing significant stress or anxiety in the sufferer.

There are many factors to insomnia including social factors, biology, and psychology, as well as many types of insomnia, from short-term insomnia to insomnia related to poor sleep habits or drug or substance abuse. Some 30 percent of adults describe symptoms of insomnia, with 10 percent of adults facing daytime consequences from their insomnia episodes.

Cognitive behavioral therapy and sleep aids — from OTC medicines to prescription medicines — may be part of your doctor’s recommended course of action for insomnia.


The Mayo Clinic says that narcolepsy can be classified as extreme drowsiness in the daytime and sleep attacks that come on suddenly. It may also be accompanied by cataplexy, or a loss of muscle tone, that causes weakness and lessened muscle control. Cataplexy is often triggered by laughter or other strong emotions.

There is no cure for narcolepsy and it’s an ongoing condition. People with the condition struggle to maintain alertness and wakefulness, which can severely interrupt their daily lives. They’re also prone to sleep paralysis and hallucinations that happen as the person falls asleep or even during their waking lives, and they’re often frightening.

A diagnosis may require a stay at a sleep center overnight in order to diagnose narcolepsy and it’s severity. Stimulants, SSRIs, SNRIs, older tricyclic anti depressants and sodium oxybate are all possible medications that a doctor may discuss for treatment of narcolepsy.

Restless Legs Syndrome

You’ve probably seen the late night commercials about restless legs syndrome, but what is it exactly? The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke describes it as sensations in the legs that makes people desperately want to move them, and the symptoms often get worse when the sufferer is sitting or lying in bed. Moving the legs often helps relieve the uncomfortable sensations, but the discomfort returns when the movement stops. This makes it difficult for people to get restful sleep.

Some 7 to 10 percent of people in the United States have restless leg syndrome. Many of them — more than 80 percent — also experience periodic limb movement of sleep (PLMS), where their legs or arms twitch every handful of seconds through the night.

Many cases of restless legs syndrome can be resolved with non-drug treatments, including lifestyle changes like reducing alcohol and tobacco intake, creating a regular sleep pattern, incorporating moderate exercise into the day, warm baths, leg massages or using hot or cold presses. Anti-seizure drugs, iron supplements and dopaminergic agents may also be considered by your doctor.

REM Sleep Behavior Disorder

Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep behavior disorder is characterized by sufferers who act out their dreams during REM stages of sleep, when most people are motionless. According to the Mayo Clinic, this can present as vocal sounds like laughing or yelling, arm and leg movements that are often violent, like kicking or punching.

The cause is that the nerve pathways that tell your body not to move during REM sleep are no longer working. Being over 50 years old and male, having narcolepsy, taking certain medications like newer types of antidepressants and certain neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson’s can all contribute to REM sleep behavior disorder.

A doctor will talk to you and possibly your sleeping partner about your behavior, as well as conduct a physical and neurological exam, and possibly a nocturnal sleep study. Your doctor may recommend making changes to your sleep environment like protecting the windows, adding padding to your bedroom, removing dangerous objects or even sleeping separately from your partner. Melatonin, a dietary supplement, and Klonopin, a medication typically used to treat anxiety, may be used to try to help the issue.

Of course, if you’re struggling to feel well-rested, you should absolutely speak with your doctor about your symptoms. Together you can create a plan of action, getting you on your way to the sleep you need.


Colleen Stinchcombe is a writer living in Phoenix, AZ. She writes for publishers, brands and individuals. Her work can be found on, Green Living AZ, the Brandless blog, CPOHealth Blog and elsewhere.

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