Sleep Health: What You Need to Know
It’s no secret that sleep is an important part of our lives. In fact, studies have shown that not getting enough sleep can put you at risk for serious conditions like diabetes and heart disease, as well as lower your immune system and leave you feeling groggy and tired all day long.
Sleep Hygiene Basics
According to Harvard Medical School, good sleep hygiene includes a schedule that is consistent and creates a regular time for waking, sleeping, and eating. This means going to bed at around the same time every night and getting up at about the same time every morning; it also means sleeping in such a way that you’re not staying in bed when you’re awake or trying hard to fall asleep. It also means creating an environment conducive to rest—for example, making sure your bedroom is dark and quiet. Make sleep a priority. Your body needs more than eight hours of sleep each night, so put yourself on a schedule that allows for at least seven hours of rest per day—and make those hours sacred. Don’t use them as the extra time during which you watch TV or spend time online doing activities other than sleeping; instead, try to go to bed early enough so that you can get as much sleep as possible without compromising on daytime responsibilities.
How Sleep Works
Before you can understand sleep health, it’s important to know how sleep works. Sleep health is a multilayered concept that involves everything from diet and exercise habits, stress levels, and time management skills. But sleeping well isn’t just about getting enough hours; it’s also about getting quality sleep. So what does good sleep look like?
The key to quality sleep is following a good sleep hygiene routine. For example, you might develop healthy habits like maintaining a regular bedtime, napping only at certain times of day, or making sure your bedroom is as dark and quiet as possible. These are just some of the many factors that can affect your sleep health. Of course, there are also medical issues that could be causing your sleep problems—for instance, if you’re suffering from insomnia due to a medical condition like sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome.
There are two main types of arousal disorders, or problems with being alert, when you need to be. One is known as sleep drunkenness (also called sleepwalking), while others are referred to as confusional arousals. Sleep drunkenness is more common in children and results in brief walking episodes during sleep. In confusional arousal, people wake up but don’t completely realize it; they’re confused and disoriented. They might get out of bed, walk around their home or another familiar place—and if they can drive a car they might end up in a dangerous situation without realizing it.
A key sign of sleep health is an adequate amount of daytime alertness. If you find yourself excessively sleepy during your waking hours, it could be a sign that you’re not getting enough quality sleep at night or your lifestyle choices are interfering with healthy sleeping habits. To combat daytime sleepiness, make sure you follow a regular sleep schedule and avoid consuming stimulating substances like caffeine right before bedtime. Additionally, consider making small changes in your daily routine—such as working out after work rather than before bed—to ensure that you get proper rest throughout the day.
Narcolepsy and Hypersomnia
The two primary hypersomnias are narcolepsy and idiopathic hypersomnia, with narcolepsy being far more common. Narcolepsy is characterized by uncontrollable periods of deep sleep; if you’ve ever watched a narcoleptic person nap, it’s almost like they go into a coma. People with narcolepsy experience not only excessive daytime sleepiness but also dream-like hallucinations that occur during waking hours. Idiopathic hypersomnia, meanwhile, has some similar symptoms but isn’t quite as severe. Instead of experiencing sudden sleep attacks, people with idiopathic hypersomnia feel incredibly sleepy all day long—which can be just as debilitating as narcolepsy. Both conditions can be treated effectively with stimulants or other medications that improve alertness without causing side effects like nervousness or jitteriness.
OSA/UARS, RLS, PLMD, and Other Restless Conditions
There are a handful of sleep disorders that cause restless movement during sleep. These conditions involve involuntary actions such as repeated body movements, legs kicking, talking in sleep, or cataplexy—an abrupt loss of muscle tone that causes people to fall from chairs or beds. OSA/UARS is more common in older adults and usually involves more than snoring; it includes loud snoring followed by periods when breathing stops altogether, leading to gasping or choking noises while asleep. RLS affects around 10 percent of the population; symptoms include uncomfortable sensations in your legs and an irresistible urge to move them, which often occurs at night. It most commonly affects women between the ages of 20 and 50. The good news is that treatments like prazosin, carbamazepine, clonazepam, and gabapentin can help relieve symptoms. PLMD results in rapid jerking movements of limbs due to abnormal levels of certain chemicals in the brain. Narcolepsy makes you feel very sleepy throughout your day and also involves abnormal REM patterns at night with frequent awakenings during sleep. All those can be embarrassing and even scary for those who experience them.
Circadian Rhythm Disorders
When your circadian rhythm isn’t functioning normally, you may develop a serious sleep disorder called a circadian rhythm disorder. The circadian rhythm controls your body’s sleep-wake cycle (circadian is derived from Latin and roughly translates to about a day). This cycle is influenced by light, which helps send signals that determine when you fall asleep and wake up.
Parasomnias, Confusional Arousals, Sleepwalking, Sleep Terrors, Breathing-Related Sleep Disorders
Parasomnias are a family of sleep disorders characterized by abnormal movements or behaviors during sleep. In confusional arousals, individuals have trouble waking up and often act confused or disoriented upon awakening. Sleepwalking and sleep terrors occur in association with slow-wave sleep. Breathing-related sleep disorders, such as obstructive sleep apnea, result from problems with breathing during sleep due to muscle weakness or tissue obstruction. Obstructive sleep apnea is a common form of sleep-disordered breathing in which there is a brief but repeated collapse of upper airway muscles during sleep leading to drops in blood oxygen levels and potential episodes of awakening (usually mild). This condition can contribute to excessive daytime sleepiness, irritability, hypertension, headaches, and other medical conditions. Sleep experts recommend an overnight sleep study at a sleep lab or similar facility for diagnosis. It is important to seek a professional evaluation if you experience symptoms associated with these sleep disturbances. Treatment may include changes in behavior, diet, exercise, oral appliances, or surgery depending on severity and cause.