One in every three people seen in the South African primary-care setting have occasional sleeping difficulties, according to the South African Society of Sleep Medicine. Ten percent of those experience chronic sleep problems.
The Society also states that between 30 and 40% of adults suffer from some form of insomnia during any given year, and that between 10 and 15% of these people 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 and energy levels. Sleeplessness can affect your work performance, your personal relationships, your concentration levels, and your general health. It can also make you feel irritable.
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 it can affect the activity of the thyroid gland. In children, a sleep disorder can 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 the possible causes. It could be as simple as cutting down on late-night snacks, chocolate, coffee or alcohol, trying to get to sleep at the same time every night, or buying a new mattress. Your room may be too cold, too hot, too light or too noisy. Sometimes there are easy solutions to disrupted sleep.
If the problem isn’t that simple, and often it isn’t, you may have to call in the help of sleep specialists, who can monitor your sleep and recommend a course of action. There are now sleep clinics in most big cities, where this can be done. Treatment 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.
Diagnosing sleep disorders
Reviewed by Dr Irshaad Ebrahim, specialist neuropsychiatrist in sleep disorders at The London Sleep Centre and The Constantia Sleep Centre. FRCPsych. April 2018.