Why do we sleep at all? Despite copious amounts of research it is still a somewhat mysterious phenomenon. Common experience tells us that we function best when rested—we are more focused, have better reaction times, generally feel better. So some portion of sleep has to do with ‘brain rest’—regeneration of neural pathways, consolidation of experience and information, a sort of ‘retooling’ for the next day. But not all sleep is of the same quality, and various levels of sleep are known, with some allowing for better ‘retooling’ than others. And the amount of sleep required by various individual varies widely, so that exactly when the ‘retooling’ process happens in a period of sleep is not known for certain.
There is an occasional person who needs very little sleep, and a rare person who never sleeps at all, just rejuvenates by physically and mentally resting. But for the vast majority of us, we need sleep, and generally more sleep than we think we need. There is a subtle but powerful notion in the U.S., less so abroad, that sleep time is ‘wasted time’, and that those people who need less sleep are somehow more productive, less wasteful of opportunity, and to be admired. However, productivity studies have shown that those who sleep ‘enough’ are more productive than those that ‘burn the candle at both ends’. The Spanish are perhaps the most adapted—the 2 hour siesta in the afternoon prepares them for increased productivity later in the day. Most sleep experts believe that 8-9 hours of sleep/night is the amount that most people need to function most effectively. And naps have been shown to be very useful for rejuvenating in the middle of the day.
Sleep disorders are common.
Sleep Apnea is perhaps the best diagnosed and managed, and has to do with obesity, tonsil and adenoid enlargement, and excessive alcohol and drug ingestion. Anything that blocks the upper airway passages will predispose to sleep apnea, with serious consequences—low blood oxygen, earlier heart disease, and of course, daytime sleepiness and loss of productivity. This is a fairly easily treated condition, and sleep study centers are now available at many hospitals to diagnose and treat this condition. Snoring is often a symptom, but doesn’t have to be present.
Insomnia is a descriptive term for loss of ability to sleep—either to go to sleep or to stay asleep for a ‘normal’ length of time. There are a myriad of causes of insomnia, and investigation by a family doctor or sleep specialist can alleviate a majority of cases. Stress, of course, is a major factor in all forms of insomnia.
Narcolepsy is less a sleep disorder than a neurological condition where a person suddenly and uncontrollably falls asleep, usually during normal waking hours, and is not necessarily related to poor night time sleep. This condition requires the intervention of a neurologist and is generally controlled with medication.
Somnambulism, or sleepwalking, is a state of physical activity in an apparent sleep state, and is rare but can be dangerous as well as frustrating for those who do it and those who deal with it. It is not well understood what the neurological mechanisms are, but many strategies have been devised to deal with it, most at least partially successful.
Night terrors happen primarily in elementary school aged children, and involve terrifying episodes of fearful hallucinations during sleep. Almost 100% of children ‘outgrow’ this condition, but it can be frightening for parents dealing it. Fever is often a trigger—our son had this, and we learned various techniques to ‘awaken’ him from this state.
Restless Legs Syndrome is a condition of uncontrolled leg movements during sleep that interrupts normal sleep cycles. The cause is unknown, but medications have been developed that will help control the movements, and most doctors are now aware of the symptoms and treatments available.
I have sleep apnea and my husband has insomnia…we make a great couple.
Do you have any sleep disorders?
How do you work through them?