Sleep Disorders

11 August 2010

Sleep – a matter of quality and timing

Insomnia is not only about how long you sleep, but rather the quality of sleep you get, and how much you feel you need.

Nearly two thirds of us are suffering from sleep deprivation.

According to Health24’s Health of the Nation Survey, which represents 2,5-million urban adults who’re earning more than R4 500 a month (that’s probably you), only 39% of us feel we’re not getting enough sleep. Even more of us - 41% - are still tired when waking up, irrespective of the hours we sleep.

Insomnia is not only about how long you sleep, but rather the quality of sleep you get, and about your own perception of how much sleep you have had and how much you feel you need.

Poor sleep can be associated with accidents, lower work productivity, and may also worsen medical and psychological conditions. Sufferers are at an increased risk of depression, a compromised immune system, and inertia. Still, and even though it is treatable, insomnia is one of the most under-diagnosed and under-treated disorders of the central nervous system.

Insomnia comes in different forms
Insomniacs are people who do not get enough quality sleep. They may have problems falling asleep (known as sleep-onset insomnia), or staying asleep (known as sleep-maintaining insomnia), they may wake up intermittently during the night or too early the next morning, or they wake up feeling unrefreshed.

Insomnia can be triggered by stress or emotional distress (in particular internalised anger or anxiety), overusing certain substances such as alcohol, disturbances to the body clock, environmental factors such as noise or extreme temperatures, and even vigorous exercising too close to bedtime. This transient insomnia often gets better in a couple of days, usually when the triggers have been eliminated or adapted to.

Nearly everybody suffers from a lack of sleep at some point in their lives. While a few nights of poor sleep won’t harm, prolonged sleep disturbances will.

Some people with transient insomnia start to worry about not sleeping and can become trapped in an exhausting, vicious cycle whereby they can work themselves up into getting less and less sleep, leading to chronic insomnia. Chronic insomnia can also be a symptom of other existing health problems, including depression, cancer or chronic pain. It can also be related to medications such as antidepressants, high blood pressure and steroids which can interfere with sleep. The International Classification of Sleep Disorders (ICSD) lists more than 84 unique sleep disorders which range from the common types such as insomnia and obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA) to the rare syndrome narcolepsy.

Quality of sleep impacts quality of life
While chronic insomnia, whether somatic or psychological, is less common than short-term sleep problems, the impact is more severe. People suffering from insomnia become handicapped in their everyday life due to an impaired ability to concentrate, forgetfulness, lack of energy, lethargy, irritability, and it has been reported they even have lower pain thresholds. Consistently tired people are generally less productive at work, less patient with others, and more prone to accidents.

Who is most prone to insomnia?

  • Women tend to be more prone to insomnia than men, with poor sleep usually associated with the menstrual cycle, menopause and pregnancy.
  • Ageing also tends to bring a change in sleeping patterns, with elderly people often suffering from lighter, more fitful sleep.
  • Patients with a history of depression are also more susceptible to insomnia.

It is important to consult with a doctor if you are experiencing consistent insomnia as there are many effective ways of treating this condition – both behaviourally and with medication, should it be necessary.

(Dr Kevin Rosman, Health24, November 2008)

Read more:
Lack of sleep ups heart risk


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Sleep disorders expert

Dr Alison Bentley is a general practitioner who has consulted in sleep medicine and sleep disorders, in both adults and children of all ages, for almost 30 years. She also researches and publishes on a number of sleep-related topics both in formal research journals and lay publications including as editor of Sleep Matters, an educational newsletter on sleep disorders for doctors.

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