Sleep disorders affect 50 to 70 million adults in the United States. The problems can range from occasional insomnia, which can be a mere annoyance to severe obstructive sleep apnea which can be a cause of death.
Sleep disorders have been found to be causative in a number of serious and very public accidents:
- Three Mile Island nuclear plant meltdown
- Exxon Valdez grounding in Alaska
- The Challenger space shuttle explosion
All three of those major accidents occurred due to poor judgment as a result sleep deprivation.
The medical community is just now beginning to understand the role of sleep in maintaining a healthy life. One thing is very clear – insufficient and/or poor quality sleep can have a profoundly negative impact on daytime performance as well having other sever health problems.
How much sleep is enough sleep?
For adults the amount of sleep necessary to operate at optimal performance varies from 6.5 to 8 hours per night. But perhaps more important than the quantity of sleep a person gets is the quality of sleep. Anything that disrupts or fragments sleep subtracts from the quality of the sleep and the benefits that come from the different various stages of sleep.
What are the stages of sleep and why are they important?
Sleep falls into two board categories: Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep or dream sleep, and Non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep. Sleep researchers have further subdivided NREM into three stages:
- Stage one is a very light, almost preliminary stage of sleep, where the body begins to relax.
- Stage two is an intermediate stage where the sleeping person is harder to rouse to wakefulness.
- Stage three (also referred to as delta stage) is the stage where the hormones responsible for repairing and restoring the body are released.
- REM sleep is the stage when the dreams occur. Current research is determining that this stage contributes to learning, memory consolidation and improved mental health.
Over the course of the night a sleeper should cycle through all the stages of sleep several times.
What are sleep disorders and why are they serious?
As the phrase implies anything that interferes with your sleep is a disorder. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine in their International Classification of Sleep Disorders lists 84 different conditions that can be described as a sleep disorder.
There are several broad categories – conditions that keep you from falling asleep or staying asleep, like insomnia or restless leg syndrome, conditions that cause you to fall asleep at inappropriate times, like narcolepsy or sleep apnea, and conditions that cause you to act while they are asleep like REM Behavior Disorder.
The consequence of all the various conditions is that they keep you from getting a good night’s sleep. Sleep deprivation can have a harmful effect on daytime functioning increasing the risk of injury from accident. The consequence of a condition like sleep apnea can damage vital organs like the heart and kidneys, as well as impairing cognitive ability.
How sleep disorders diagnosed and what are the treatments?
As with any medical condition, if you are concerned that you have a sleep disorder, talk with your primary care physician. After speaking with him a determination can be made whether to consult a physician who is Board certified in sleep medicine.
The sleep physician has the specialized screening tools and tests to make a diagnosis and will often recommend an overnight sleep study, either in the home, or the sleep lab, to further understand the nature of the problem.
On the basis of the testing the physician may recommend a number of different strategies to address the problem – from improving sleep hygiene, to using a pharmaceutical, to using a device to insure enough air is getting into your lungs while you sleep.
Sleep takes up one third of our lives. Current research demonstrates healthy sleep contributes to a healthy life as much, if not more than, a good diet and appropriate exercise.
If you feel that you are having problems with sleep, not waking up refreshed or feeling tired during the day you may have a sleep disorder that is keeping you from performing at your peak and causing other health-related problems.
For more information – visit the American Sleep Apnea Association web site – www.sleepapnea.org
© 2011 American Sleep Apnea Association