What are the various causes and effects of sleep disorders?
Nearly everyone will suffer from some sort of sleep-related disturbance at some point their life. A third of Australians report having insufficient sleep and studies show children today sleep 75 minutes less than they did 100 years ago.
Those with sleep disorders may have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, waking up too early, or getting good quality sleep. Oftentimes they don’t wake up feeling rested and during the day they feel sleepy, tired, and have trouble functioning. Indeed, sleep deprivation affects just about every facet of being a healthy functional human. It reduces our motivation, energy, concentration, memory, mood, and our ability to learn.
There is a close link between sleep disorders and mental disorders. Sleep deprivation is associated with higher rates of anxiety and depression, which begets further sleep deprivation in a vicious cycle.
The Multiple Causes of Sleep Disorders
Sleep disorders can be caused by many different factors. Psychological factors, such as grief, trauma, relationship difficulty, and abusive environments commonly cause sleep issues. Sometimes these causes are temporary, but other times these sleep issues can cause or exacerbate psychological disorders like ADHD, OCD, anxiety and depression.
Many different health conditions can also cause sleep issues. This includes diabetes, neurological disorders like dementia-related diseases, sleep apnea, heartburn, and restless leg syndrome. In rare cases, sleep disorders are associated with genetic causes, such as in Fatal Familial Insomnia wherein affected people have fatal progressive insomnia. Oftentimes, specialist physicians can be consulted to recommend the best treatment plan that is tailored around the specific medical condition. In some cases, a sleep study may be performed to better understand the causes of sleep disorder by looking at brain EEG activity during the phases of sleep.
Substance-related causes is another very common cause of sleep disorders. Alcohol, caffeine, and other stimulants may interfere with dropping into a restful sleep. Alcohol is associated with faster sleep onset but reduced REM sleep and multiple awakenings. In the case of illicit or prescribed medications, sedative properties may seem to induce sleep but natural sleep is still interfered with, resulting in poor sleep quality and daytime somnolence.
Lastly, sleep disorders can be caused by environmental factors. This includes light and noise pollution that is so common in modernity, as well as factors like unhealthy diets and near-constant exposure to blue-spectrum light in the form of smartphones, laptops, and structural lights that interferes with normal melatonin production. Sometimes, sleep disorders are a consequence of our lifestyle, as in the case of late-night shift work.
The Multiple Effects of Sleep Disorders
The negative effects of sleep disorders ripple out into the day-to-day life of those who suffer as well as into the lives of those they interact with, impacting everything from health, cognition, and emotions to relationships and work productivity.
Sleep disorders can cause severe health effects, especially in long-term sleep deprivation or chronic insomnia. This includes a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes, and various mental illnesses. For those with sleep apnea, low testosterone is a common comorbidity, causing a reduction of sexual libido. Lack of sleep is also associated with an increase in hunger and appetite, particularly for high-fat, high-carb foods, making weight gain another adverse health effect.
On the psychological level, more than a third of the population deals with low mood, fatigue, and irritability that puts them at risk for disorders like anxiety and depression, or exacerbating mental illness that is already present.
The effects of sleep disorders compound negatively at the level of work and family as well, damaging personal relationships with friends, families, and coworkers. Those suffering from sleep deprivation and sleep disorders are less productive, less safe operating vehicles or other machinery, and less pleasant to work with collaboratively and in a family environment.
Sleep Disorders Are A Serious Problem
Dr Hillman found that nighttime computer use was significantly associated with the negative sleep patterns observed among everyday Australians. 44% of adults are on the internet before bed, exposing themselves to blue light that affects their ability to produce melatonin, the hormone that regulates sleep-wake cycles. Further, 59% of these late night web users have more than two sleep problems.
Further studies indicate that 29% of adults drive while drowsy at least once a month, with a fifth of them nodding off during a drive and 5% admitting to an accident in the past year due to sleep deprivation. Additionally, 21% of men and 13% of women stated they fell asleep at work in the past month.
Sleep disorders need to be recognised for the serious problem that they are. While caused by a multitude of factors, they all lead to impairments at the level of our physical and mental health in addition to our detrimental impact at the family and societal level.