Sleep Disorders

Updated 11 August 2014

What are sleep disorders?

One in three South Africans has occasional difficulty sleeping, but for some, narcolepsy, insomnia and other sleep disorders make a good night's sleep seem impossible.

What are sleep disorders?

Not every person needs the same amount of sleep. Some people are happy with six hours a night while others need eight hours or more.

Every single person experiences trouble sleeping at some time or another. This could be temporary, such as when the neighbours are having a party, or because you are nervous about a job interview. A temporary sleep disruption usually has a discernable cause, and the sleep disruption comes to an end once that particular source of stress or noise is no longer present.

If you constantly feel sleepy during the day, you have difficulty falling or staying asleep at night, you wake up very early, or feel tired when you wake up, you could be suffering from a more serious sleep disorder. You may have had this problem for a long time, so it could start feeling normal to you.

Who suffers from sleep disorders?

One in every three patients seen in the SA primary care setting have occasional sleeping difficulties, according to the South African Society of Sleep Medicine. Ten percent of those experience chronic sleep problems. 

They also state that between thirty and forty percent of adults suffer from some form of insomnia during any given year, and between ten and fifteen percent of those suffer from severe or chronic insomnia. Sleep disorders tend to get worse as people get older, and more women than men experience serious sleeping difficulties.

Why are sleep disorders so debilitating?

Many people who suffer from sleep disorders have underlying medical or mental health problems. And you don’t have to lie awake all night every night for a lack of sleep to take its toll on your general sense of well-being, energy and efficiency levels. This can affect your work performance, your personal relationships, concentration levels and general health. It could also make you feel irritable.

Read: Poor sleep linked to pain in older adults

Not sleeping well can have neurological effects, such as slurred speech or shakiness. It can make your body temperature decrease slightly, have an effect on the secretion of hormones, and can also affect the activity of the thyroid gland. In children, a sleep disorder can actually affect growth.

Everyone can learn to sleep better, but it may take some commitment from you, tracking your specific symptoms and sleeping patterns in order to eliminate possible causes. It could be as simple as cutting down on late-night snacks, chocolate, coffee or alcohol consumption, or trying to get to sleep at the same time every night – or even buying a new mattress. Your room may be too cold, too hot or too light. Sometimes there are easy solutions to disrupted sleep.

Read: Hypnosis may improve deep sleep 

If the problem is not that simple, and often it isn’t, you may have to call in the help of sleep specialists, who can monitor your sleep (there are now sleep clinics in most big cities, where this can be done) and recommend a course of action. This may entail lifestyle changes, or taking medication.

But with modern medicine, you no longer have to live with a sleeping disorder and let it disrupt your life. Sometimes medication can be taken on a short-term basis to sort out your sleeping pattern. Some people may need long-term treatment.

You no longer have to go through life with everyone telling you that you look tired, or feeling that you need a cup of strong coffee every hour to keep going. 

Read more:
Symptoms of sleep disorders
Diagnosing sleep disorders

Sources: About.comSouth African Society of Sleep


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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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