Having a bad night’s sleep occasionally is a nuisance. But getting poor or insufficient sleep night after night can contribute to chronic diseases as well as cognitive problems for both adults and children.
Insufficient sleep affects almost every system in the body, said Dr. Sasidharan Taravath, the medical director of the Sleep Disorders, Epilepsy Monitoring Unit & Pediatric Neurodiagnostics Program at New Hanover Regional Medical Center. Studies have shown a relationship between poor sleep and cardiovascular disease, obesity, and Type 2 diabetes; and evidence suggests an association between poor sleep and hypertension, he added.
The problems don’t stop there. Poor sleep affects memory, executive function, and learning. Adults who get insufficient sleep often perform poorly on the job, and their relationships with family and friends can suffer. Children who sleep poorly can have trouble learning.
Poor sleep isn’t rare. Twenty to 30 percent of adults and 6 to 7 percent of children suffer from sleep disorders, Dr. Taravath said. And that’s a conservative number, as most sleep disorders aren’t diagnosed.
That’s especially true for children.
“Kids get narcolepsy; they get insomnia,” Dr. Taravath said. “They start early, but they often don’t get diagnosed because parents aren’t aware of the extent of the problem.”
Yet with proper diagnosis and treatment, sleep disorders can be managed and some chronic conditions can be improved.
How Much Sleep Do You Need?
Sleep requirements change as we age. Newborns need 14-17 hours of sleep; infants, 12-16 hours; toddlers, 11-14 hours; preschoolers, 10-12 hours; and school age children, 9-12 hours. Teenagers and adults, including seniors, need eight hours of sleep.
No one older than five or six should need a nap, according to Dr. Taravath. If you absolutely must take a nap, indulge for just 20 minutes. Any more will interfere with your drive for sleep at night.
Treatment for Sleep Problems
The first step in resolving sleep problems is to practice good sleep hygiene:
Get 20 minutes of aerobic exercise five days a week
Go to bed and wake up at the same time
Remove electronic devices from the bedroom
Engage in a relaxing activity before going to bed
Avoid heavy meals, alcohol and caffeine in the evening
Check that medications don’t interfere with sleep.
If these measures don’t help and lack of sleep interferes with your life, you should see your primary care physician. He or she may recommend that you be tested at a sleep lab. If so, you will undergo a comprehensive analysis of your sleep.
With the information from your sleep test, the sleep specialist will determine the appropriate treatment for your sleep disorder. If poor sleep is caused by a medical problem, the sleep specialist will bring in the appropriate physician to treat you. Otherwise, the sleep specialist will determine your treatment plan. Treatment may include medication, cognitive behavior therapy, and/or lifestyle changes such as exercising and losing weight.
Common Sleep Disorders
The most common sleep disorders, described below, often require the care of a primary care physician or a sleep specialist to be treated.
Sleep Apnea: Those with sleep apnea have blocked airways during sleep, which causes them to wake up several times during the night with a sudden snorting noise. This condition is often treated effectively with weight loss and/or continuous positive airway pressure, known as CPAP.
Insomnia: Insomniacs have trouble falling or staying asleep, or they may wake up too early in the morning.
Restless Leg Syndrome: Individuals with RLS experience aches and pains in their legs, which is relieved by walking and kicking. The condition makes it hard to fall and/or stay asleep.
Narcolepsy: Those with narcolepsy are excessively tired during the day. They may fall asleep at any time during the day or experience sudden muscle weakness.
Parasomnia: This group of disorders includes sleepwalking, night terrors, sleep paralysis, sleep hallucinations, and exploding head syndrome (hearing a loud, imaginary noise before sleeping or waking).
Snoring: Though snoring can be benign, it can also signal a serious medical problem such as sleep apnea, hypertension, or cardiac issues.
Treating Sleep Disorders Improves Chronic Disease
Getting treatment for a sleeping problem can do more than help with a good night’s sleep. Research shows that treating sleep disorders can significantly impact some chronic conditions.
For example, by treating sleep apnea, patients with Type 2 diabetes have seen improvements in nighttime glucose levels and insulin sensitivity (as well as increases in alertness during the day and improved memory and cognitive function), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Treatment of sleep apnea may have as much of an effect as prescribed oral diabetes medications, according to a study from the University of Chicago.
Sleep apnea treatment can also decrease blood pressure, according to the Academy of Sleep Medicine, with the greatest improvement in patients seeking treatment for moderate to severe sleep apnea.
Finally, treating sleep disorders helps those who are overweight shed pounds, according to Dr. Taravath. Sleeping through the night minimizes night binges and improves the metabolism.
New Hanover Regional Medical Center has a sleep lab that can accommodate adults and children. Each room includes a bathroom, television, refrigerator and a window. Parents are encouraged to stay with children during the test.
NHRMC Physician Group-Coastal Pulmonary Medicine also evaluates patients with sleep disorders and has an adult sleep lab.