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What is a Sleep Disorder?

Updated: Mar 20, 2021

There are many factors that impact our sleeping patterns. Most of these factors are based on either our environment or our own biology. Many people can agree that differences in sleep are caused by age. Yet, there are more aspects to varied sleep patterns than one might think.

For example, sleep can be influenced by genetics or culture. It is in this way that biology and environment interact in ways that affect our overall health. Trying to sleep with bright lights on affect our circadian clock, which is the biological clock in our bodies that keeps our bodily rhythms functioning. The light actually triggers a chemical release of proteins that control our circadian clock, which in turn modifies our feelings of sleepiness. Therefore, being exposed to too much light, or being deprived of light completely, can actually disrupt our biological clock and affect our rest and wellbeing.

Fun Fact: The invention of the lightbulb has actually affected our sleeping habits.

Sleep Deprivation and Disorders

So what happens when we lose too much sleep?

Sleep commands roughly a third of our lives, so you might imagine just how drastically lack of sleep can affect us. College and university students are especially sleep deprived. Recent studies have shown that over the past 20 years in particular, students have lost so much sleep that researchers have coined the term "The Great Sleep Recession."

The rise in sleep deprivation has led to many findings, including that tiredness triggers testiness, sleep loss is a cause of depression, and that sleep deprived students often function below their best capability. This often results in difficulty studying, less productivity, frequent mistakes, irritability, and fatigue.

Sleep deprivation has also been found to affect our physical health. Weight gain, decreased metabolic rate, increased levels of stress hormones, lower levels of immune cells, and slower reactions to stimuli are all consequences of lack of sleep.

Major Sleep Disorders

Sleep deprivation and sleep disorders are inherently related, as they both lead to increased health risks such as hypertension, diabetes, obesity, depression, heart attack, and stroke. Some of the most common sleep disorders in the U.S. include Insomnia, Sleep Apnea, Night Terrors, Narcolepsy, and Sleepwalking.

Insomnia is characterized by recurring problems and difficulty while falling or staying asleep. About 1 in 10 adults, and 1 in 4 older adults suffer from insomnia in the U.S. The effects of insomnia include chronic tiredness, a reliance on substances like sleeping pills and alcohol. This reliance ultimately leads to more problems as they reduce REM sleep and also result in a tolerance for those substances - Wherein increased doses are necessary to produce the needed effect.

Sleep Apnea is a sleep disorder that occurs during temporary cessations of breathing during sleep, alongside repeated awakenings at night. 1 in 20 adults are diagnosed with Sleep Apnea in the U.S., and the effects of this disorder include fatigue, depression, and obesity, particularly in men.

Night Terrors are often identified by high arousal during sleep and the appearance of being terrified. Unlike regular nightmares, night terrors occur during Stage 3 NREM, within two or three hours of falling asleep. The terrors are also rarely remembered. While 1 in 100 adults experience night terrors, 1 in 30 children in the U.S. suffer from this disorder, which can lead to the doubling of a child's heart rate and breathing rate. Oftentimes, children do not remember nothing of the even the next day. Although, as people age the attacks become less frequent.

Narcolepsy is a sleep disorder that is defined by uncontrollable sleep attacks, where the sufferer may fall immediately into REM sleep, often with bad timing. Around 1 in 2,000 adults suffer from narcolepsy, and the effects of this disorder include the risk of falling asleep at dangerous moments, such as driving. The sleep attacks usually last less than five minutes, but because they can happen at unfortunate and emotional times, everyday activities require extra attention and caution.

Sleepwalking and sleep talking are often categorized as the same disorder, because of their nature. They are characterized by doing normal activities whilst asleep. These activities include sitting up, walking, and speaking. While sleep talking can occur during any sleep stage, sleepwalking only happens in Stage 3 NREM. Around 1 to 15 in 100 of the general population sleepwalk, and 1/2 of children sleep talk. Though there are very few serious concerns about sleepwalking, the process is very complex and still being studied by researchers. The good news is that sleepwalkers return to their bed on their own (or with the help of a family member) and rarely remember their trek in the morning.

If you experience symptoms or effects of any of disorders listed above, be sure to contact your healthcare provider as soon as possible.

Get a Better Night's Sleep

There are, of course, natural ways that we can all try to make the transition to sleep somewhat easier. The following lists only some of endless ways that we can all get closer to a restful and happy sleep.

  • Exercise Regularly, but not late in the evenings.

  • Avoid caffeine and food near your bedtime (with some exceptions, such as milk).

  • Try to relax before heading to bed; Using a dimmer light often helps.

  • Maintain a regular sleep schedule. This might include incorporating some details into your daily routine, such as avoiding long naps, or waking up at the same time everyday.

  • Hide time displays in your room so you don't check them repeatedly before sleeping.

  • Reassure yourself that temporary sleep loss does not cause great harm — So if you need to get that essay submitted by midnight, there's no need to stress yourself out more about losing some sleep.

  • Focus on non-arousing or engaging thoughts before you sleep; This can include singing song lyrics or thinking about a holiday trip.

Hopefully these tips help you out, but if you are suffering from more serious, chronic symptoms, do not hesitate to reach out to a professional and find out if there may an underlying problem in your sleep or health.



1. Myers, D. G., & DeWall, C. N. (2021). Psychology. New York: Bedford, Freeman & Worth.

2. Keyes, K. M., Maslowsky, J., Hamilton, A., & Schulenberg, J. (2015). The great sleep recession: changes in sleep duration among US adolescents, 1991-2012. Pediatrics, 135(3), 460–468.

3. Keyes, K., Maslowsky, J., Hamilton, A., & Schulenberg, J. (2015, March 01). The great Sleep Recession: Changes in sleep duration among US adolescents, 1991–2012.

4. Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Sleep Medicine and Research; Colten HR, Altevogt BM, editors. Sleep Disorders and Sleep Deprivation: An Unmet Public Health Problem. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2006.

5. Obstructive sleep apnea. (2019, June 05).

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