Sleep Disorders

Disruptions in sleep

Do you find yourself browsing the Internet into the early hours of the morning? Falling asleep in the middle of the afternoon? Are you irritable and unproductive? You’re not alone. These are all signs of disordered sleeping, which affects more than three million Canadians and may also affect their sleeping partners.

The need for zzz's

Humans need sleep in order to function properly. Although each person’s individual need for sleep differs, it is estimated that the average adult requires between seven and nine hours of sleep per night. When that sleep is disrupted, it can have serious consequences during our waking hours, including decreased productivity, irritability and distraction. These issues can affect our personal lives, our careers and can even result in accidents, such as car collisions.

There are many different types of sleep disorders. Some of the most common include sleep apnea, in which breathing issues throughout the night result in exhaustion, and insomnia, which is characterized by sleeplessness.

Other common sleep disorders include:

  • Restless leg syndrome, which is characterized by an irresistible urge to move the arms or legs.
  • Narcolepsy, in which excessive sleepiness will result in a person involuntarily falling asleep, often at inappropriate times.
  • Bruxism, the involuntary grinding and clenching of the teeth during sleep, leading to headaches, muscle pain and potential dental problems.
  • Circadian sleep rhythm disorder does not affect sleep itself but causes the affected person to fall asleep outside of what’s accepted as normal sleeping hours.
  • Somnambulism (sleepwalking) is more common in children than adults and is characterized by the affected person engaging in activities like walking or eating while asleep. Often, these activities are harmless, but sleepwalkers have also engaged in dangerous activities like cooking and driving

There are many potential causes of sleep disorders. Poor sleep hygiene often leads to disordered sleeping. A person with poor sleep hygiene engages in several behaviours that are linked to sleep disorders, including:

  • Keeping an irregular sleeping schedule
  • Daytime napping
  • Drinking caffeine in the afternoons and evenings
  • Exercising shortly before bedtime

Underlying medical issues, like psychosis, mood disorders and alcoholism, can also lead to disordered sleeping.

The first step toward treatment is diagnosis. The Nova Scotia Health Authority Sleep Disorders Program offers a full testing laboratory in which patients’ sleep can be assessed. Upon diagnosis, treatment for sleep disorders is varied and depends on the disorder:

In some cases, such as insomnia, simple behavioural modifications can be effective. This helps the patient address what behaviours may be leading to sleeplessness, such as diet, exercise habits or napping. Patients with moderate to severe sleep apnea may require the use of a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) device, which is a small machine that connects to a face mask and helps alleviate breathing issues during the night. Medication is used to treat narcolepsy and is sometimes used to treat circadian sleep rhythm disorders and restless leg syndrome. These medications include melatonin, benzodiazepines, such as alprazolam, and nonbenzodiazepine hypnotics, such as zolpidem (Ambien), zaleplon (Sonata) or eszopiclone (Lunesta). Other forms of treatment for sleep disorders include bright light therapy, surgical procedures, and the treatment of any underlying medical issues.