The Ultimate Guide to Sleep Disorders (Causes, Symptoms & Treatment)

1) Insomnia

We all know the importance of sleep. Adults need about 7 to 9 hours each night to function optimally and feel fully rested. But what if we hit the hay with the best of intentions and still can’t fall or stay asleep? Is our health and happiness doomed?

Types of Insomnia

The good news is: insomnia is often a short-term problem. The Mayo Clinic explains that this short-lived lack of sleep—also called acute insomnia—lasts days or weeks and may be caused by a traumatic life event or stress.

Chronic insomnia, on the other hand, lasts for a month to many years. This long-term sleep disorder may be a standalone medical condition, or it may be related to other conditions or even medications.

The Causes

There are many medical conditions and life circumstances or events that can lead to insomnia. Below are some common examples:

  • Pre-bedtime habits can lead to sleep disturbances. Eating, watching television, or using digital devices in bed stimulates our minds and keep us awake. Naps, an inconsistent bedtime ritual, and varied sleep/wake times are also detrimental to sleep.
  • Stress wreaks havoc on our bodies and minds, even in the middle of the night. Worrying about family members, health, money, and the future often keep us awake. And whether good or bad, life changes and events affect our sleep, as well.
  • Jet Lag and Shift Work throw off our circadian rhythms, meaning our bodies are never quite sure when to sleep and when to wake up.
  • Bedtime eating is typically okay, but only in small quantities. Eating a large meal right before bed can cause heartburn or gastrointestinal discomfort.

Coexisting Conditions and Treatments

Insomnia is often related to other health conditions, treatments, stimulants, and drugs. Here are a few examples:

  • Many medical conditions are associated with insomnia, including chronic pain, arthritis, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, thyroid disease, and Parkinson’s disease, among many others.
  • People with mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety, often have trouble sleeping or wake too early in the morning.
  • Certain medications—both prescription and over-the-counter—can lead to insomnia. Some common examples are: antidepressants, blood pressure medication, allergy or cold medicine, or supplements and other products intended for weight loss.
  • Other sleep disorders, like restless leg syndrome and sleep apnea, often cause insomnia.
  • Stimulants, such as coffee, tea, and soda can keep us awake. Nicotine and other tobacco products are also common culprits. The Mayo Clinic notes that while alcohol may help induce sleep, it prevents us from falling into deep sleep and promotes waking up after just a few hours of snoozing.

Insomnia Symptoms

Many symptoms of this frustrating sleep disorder may be obvious to most folks. Some symptoms, however, are often overlooked or simply misunderstood.

  • Difficulty falling asleep, the inability to stay asleep, or waking too early in the morning are all signs of insomnia. If these symptoms occur several nights in a row, we often begin to worry about our disturbed sleep pattern, and the vicious cycle continues.
  • Waking up feeling tired each morning is another tell-tale sign of insomnia. When we don’t feel refreshed, rested, or focused, it’s quite possible our sleep cycle is suffering right along with us.
  • Irritability, anxiety, and/or depression can all result from insomnia.
  • Daytime tiredness, lack of focus, and/or difficulty remembering are all signs we need more Z’s. Nighttime insomnia may be irritating, but the impact it has on our waking hours is downright annoying.
  • Recurring errors or accidents are linked to insomnia. When our brains aren’t rested and ready for everyday tasks, they tend to make mistakes.

How Aging Affects Insomnia

While many things improve with age, sleep isn’t necessarily one of them. The Mayo Clinic explains that our internal clocks speed up as we age, signaling us to sleep earlier and wake up earlier, as well. Other effects include:

  • Sleep disruption: As we age, nearby noises wake us up more easily.
  • Changes in physical activity: When our activity decreases, our sleep is affected. Lack of physical activity often leads to daytime sleeping, which can negatively impact sleep at night.
  • Medical conditions: Many health changes associated with aging can lead to chronic insomnia, including arthritis, bladder or prostate issues, and mental health concerns.

Who’s at Risk

Insomnia affects children, teens, and men and women of all ages. Those of us in the following categories are at an increased risk:

  • Stressed out individuals: As mentioned above, stress can have a negative effect on sleep. Stress is associated with both acute insomnia and chronic insomnia.
  • Women: Although many men experience insomnia, women are at greater risk due to pregnancy and hormone changes during menstruation and menopause.
  • Older adults: Adults over 60 have a higher chance of experiencing insomnia due to health conditions, increased medications, etc.
  • Those with physical or mental health conditions: Individuals with a coexisting condition are at greater risk for sleep disturbances.
  • Shift workers and travelers: People who travel often (especially to different time zones) and those who work nontraditional hours may experience insomnia.

Quality of Life

Lack of sleep can make every aspect of life more difficult—and less enjoyable. Those suffering with insomnia often struggle with performance at work or school, have co-occurring mental health conditions, and have an increased risk of being diagnosed with heart disease or high blood pressure.

What You Can Do to Treat Insomnia

Below is a list of best practices to promote a better night’s sleep and decrease the risk of insomnia:

  • Prepare your bedroom: Make your sleep space as comfortable as possible by keeping it cool, dark, and quiet.
  • Establish a sleep schedule: Aim to sleep and wake up at the same time every day.
  • Incorporate mindful movement: Moving your body is good for the soul—and your sleep cycle!
  • Avoid stimulants and alcohol: Nixing caffeine in the afternoon and evening, along with other stimulants and alcohol, will likely result in better sleep.
  • Treat yourself: Before climbing into bed tonight, think of your favorite soothing activities. Taking a bubble bath, reading a novel, listening to music, journaling, meditating, or even coloring are all activities that can help us to unwind after a hectic day.
  • Skip a big meal: Going to bed hungry isn’t ideal, nor is eating a heavy meal. Find a middle ground by eating a light, enjoyable bedtime snack without eating past the point of fullness.
  • Nap responsibly: If you love a good nap (who doesn’t?), opt for a short snooze early in the day. There’s a good chance late day naps will impact nighttime sleep.
  • Reframe your brain for a better night’s sleep: While the above list of practices may help your slumber, remember they’re simply suggestions and not hard-and-fast rules. Worrying can be just as detrimental to sleep as a massive meal or an evening margarita, so implement these practices when you’re able, but remember: perfection isn’t the goal.
  • Consult your doctor: If you continue to struggle with insomnia, contact your doctor.

2) Sleep Apnea


Bedtime is supposed to be the most relaxing time of the day, but if you or someone you love struggles with sleep apnea, it’s often a time for worry.

What is Sleep Apnea?

The National Sleep Foundation defines sleep apnea as “a sleep disorder in which breathing is briefly and repeatedly interrupted during sleep.” Those suffering with this sleep disorder experience a halt in breathing that lasts at least 10 seconds.  While men are more likely to have the disorder, women—and even children—are also effected. According to NSF, sleep apnea affects more than 18 million Americans and is just as common as type 2 diabetes.

Types of Sleep Apnea

There are 3 types of sleep apnea:

  • Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when the muscles in the throat relax. This is the most common type. It often causes fragmented sleep and low blood oxygen levels.
  • Central sleep apnea is the result of the brain not sending signals to the muscles in charge of breathing.
  • Complex sleep apnea syndrome is when a person experiences both obstructive and central sleep apnea symptoms.

A Serious Sleep Disorder

Regardless of the type of sleep apnea an individual is experiencing, the disorder should be taken seriously. Many people who suffer and don’t seek treatment stop breathing hundreds of times every night, often for a minute or more each time. Perhaps most concerning of all is the fact that most sufferers don’t even notice the frequent breaks in breathing.

The Long-Term Impact

Seeking help is important for people with sleep apnea. Those who go untreated are at high risk for the following health conditions:

  • Weight gain
  • Headaches
  • Memory problems
  • High blood pressure
  • Stroke
  • Heart disease
  • Depression
  • Pre-diabetes and diabetes
  • Impotence

Longtime sufferers have been known to fall asleep while driving, resulting in life-threatening auto accidents.

Signs and Symptoms

Individuals with sleep apnea often snore loudly. They are at an increased risk for obesity, are often tired throughout the day, and wake in the morning with a headache and/or dry mouth. They may also wake up in the middle of the night out of breath. It’s important to note, however, that some sufferers experience no obvious symptoms.

Risk Factors

As mentioned above, men are most likely to be affected with sleep apnea. Other at-risk individuals include those who are overweight or obese and/or over the age of 40.

The most notable risk factor of all is the lack of understanding and awareness about this complicated sleep disorder. Because physicians often fail to diagnose the disorder, most people suffering with sleep apnea go untreated for years or even a lifetime.

The Diagnosis

Individuals who believe they may be experiencing sleep apnea should keep a record of their sleep cycles, tiredness, and other symptoms, and contact a doctor as soon as possible. A sleep study, including tests for heart rate, blood oxygen level, and airflow, will determine if sleep apnea is occurring and how serious the condition is.  Sleep studies are conducted in a sleep clinic or at home.

Sleep Apnea Treatment

Sleep apnea is most often treated with a continuous positive airway pressure device, also called a CPAP machine. The device includes a mask to be placed over the mouth and/or nose, and sends continuous gentle air into the individual’s airway to ensure it stays open during sleep. Patients must use the machine nightly for positive short-term and long-term effects.

Other treatment options include oral appliance therapy, which includes a custom mouth device similar to a mouth guard. Dental sleep medicine specialists create the device to hold the tongue or support the jaw in order to keep the airway from collapsing.

If you or a loved one is experiencing sleep apnea, seek medical help right away. Spreading the word about this serious condition will lead to more diagnoses and increased quality of life for sufferers.

3) Snoring


Have a reputation for sawing logs? You’re certainly not alone. About 40 percent of adult men and 24 percent of adult women snore habitually, according to Even if you don’t snore on a nightly basis, there’s a 50 percent chance you’ll saw logs at some point during your lifetime.

If you’re wondering why there are so many snorers—and what you can do to snooze quietly—read on. Pillow Picker has all the information you need about why we snore and what we can do about it.

Why We Snore

Sure, snoring is annoying—especially to a wide awake spouse or partner. That harsh, recurring sound is the result of vibrating throat tissue during nighttime breathing. The National Sleep Foundation explains that “the narrower your airway becomes, the greater the vibration and the louder your snoring.” In some cases, the airway closes completely, resulting in sleep apnea.

Who Snores More

Snoring doesn’t discriminate; it affects males and females of all ages. Those most-likely to be snorers include:

  • Men
  • Folks with a narrow airway
  • Individuals who are overweight
  • Older adults
  • People with nasal issues
  • Those who have snorers in their families
  • Back sleepers
  • Alcohol drinkers and depressant users (due to the relaxing of the throat)
  • People with sinus or allergy issues, or those who have a cold

A Hidden Condition

Many people have no idea they snore. Those with bed partners or housemates have most-likely been told, but solo sleepers are often oblivious. You might be a snorer if you:

  • Wake up with a dry mouth
  • Have a scratchy or sore throat in the morning

A note to solo sleepers: If you are waking yourself up by snoring, make an appointment with your doctor. He or she can order an X-ray or a sleep study to determine if you may be dealing with obstructive sleep apnea. Not sure if you’re a snorer? Try using a recording device to capture your nighttime noises.

Snore-Stopping Strategies

While there is no real cure for snoring, there are many ways to saw a few less logs throughout the night. Below is a list of tips and best practices to help you sleep quietly:

  • Avoid alcohol and other sedatives before bedtime: If you do have a drink, stop sipping two to three hours before sleep.
  • Avoid back sleeping: Roll onto your side to lessen the likelihood of snoring. Snuggling up to a body pillow can help keep you from rolling onto your back.
  • Use an extra pillow or raise the head of your bed: Elevating your head may help to keep airways open.
  • Lose weight: Shedding some pounds can help if you carry weight in your neck. It’s important to note, however, than thin people also snore.
  • Don’t go to bed overly tired: If you’re short on sleep and exhausted by the time you crawl into bed, get more Z’s to decrease your chance of snoring. Aim for about 7 to 9 hours each night.
  • Use nasal strips: It’s possible that your nose—not your throat—could be the primary problem. Nasal strips open the nasal passages, making for easier breathing.
  • Address allergies: If you’re stuffy, your chances of snoring are higher. Treat seasonal or chronic allergies, and consider replacing your pillows or getting a pillow protector. Dust bunnies may be to blame for your sniffles.
  • Drink water: While guzzling fluids right before bed isn’t ideal, be sure to drink plenty of fluids throughout the day to keep your mouth and throat lubricated and prevent dehydration.
  • Avoid smoking: Quitting can reduce snoring.

A note to bed partners: If you spouse or partner snores, use a fan or white noise machine to drown out the sound. Earplugs are also an option, or you can try falling asleep before your partner. If the above strategies don’t reduce or stop your loved one’s snoring, encourage him or her to see a physician. Your peaceful night’s sleep depends on it.

4) Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS)


Sleep deprivation and sleep disorders are quickly becoming the norm. Along with common sleep disturbances like insomnia and sleep apnea, lesser-known disorders such as Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS) are keeping people from sleeping and negatively affecting their everyday lives.

Many men and women struggling with RLS (also called Willis-Ekbom Disease) don’t seek help for fear of not being taken seriously. Other times, doctors misdiagnose the disorder, blaming the symptoms on anxiety or stress.

If you or someone you love is living with RLS, there is hope. Below are facts and helpful information about this often misunderstood disorder, including a variety of treatment options.

What is Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS)?

Restless legs syndrome is caused by sensations in the legs and feet. Some people experience the sensations in other body parts, including the arms. The feeling is often described as tingly, itchy, aching, or crawling.

People with RLS feel an overwhelming urge to move their legs in an attempt to ease the restless feeling. Most individuals with the syndrome experience the sensations during times of rest, including bedtime and throughout the night. Long periods of sitting can also trigger symptoms.

What Causes Restless Leg Syndrome and Who’s At Risk?

While a cause has not been determined, the Mayo Clinic reports that researchers believe RLS may be caused by an imbalance in dopamine—a chemical in the brain.

RLS affects about 10% of adults, according to the National Sleep Foundation. One study conducted in the U.S. and U.K. found that about 2% of children experience the condition.

The people most-likely to experience RLS are:

  • Those with a family history of the syndrome (almost 50 percent of sufferers have a family member with the condition)
  • Pregnant women, especially during the third trimester
  • People with chronic diseases, such as diabetes, kidney failure, and Parkinson’s disease

Why Is RLS Underdiagnosed and Misdiagnosed?

Unfortunately, many physicians and other healthcare professionals don’t link common RLS symptoms to the disorder. This leads to many undiagnosed and misdiagnosed sufferers, partly due to the fact that the symptoms are similar to other medical conditions. The likelihood of being diagnosed is even less for those with mild cases. Physicians have been known to diagnose patients complaining of RLS symptoms with depression.

Another reason for misdiagnosis is the lack of medical tests available for RLS. Physicians can order bloodwork and conduct various exams, including neurological tests, which often only prove the absence of other conditions.

What Should I Do If I Suspect I have RLS?

It’s important for patients to be their own advocates and to give medical providers any information that may lead to diagnosis. Individuals who suspect they have RLS should list any medications they are taking, any symptoms they’re experiencing, and any notable changes since their last appointment.

Communication is key, and having documentation ensures patients won’t omit important details. If the patient has a spouse or living companion who has witnessed his or her RLS symptoms, it can be helpful to bring the loved one along to appointments.

What Other Medical Conditions Are Associated with RLS?

Many times, RLS is a primary diagnosis and has no detrimental effects on long-term health. Sometimes, however, other serious medical conditions are present. Nerve damage in the hands and feet—a condition called peripheral neuropathy—sometimes occurs in RLS patients. Kidney failure and anemia are also common coexisting conditions.

How Does RLS Affect Everyday Life?

The severity of RLS symptoms often determines the impact it has on an individual’s day-to-day life. Some patients report that symptoms are frustrating but not intolerable; others are sleep-deprived from nighttime restlessness and note a decline in quality of life. Those who suffer with severe RLS symptoms spend much of the day tired and experience many sleepless nights.

How Is Restless Leg Syndrome Treated?

There are many medications that can be prescribed to help alleviate RLS symptoms. They include:

  • Dopamine-increasing medications
  • Opioids (although patients can become dependent on these drugs)
  • Sleep medications and muscle relaxers

It’s important to note that some medications make RLS worse, and it is often unsafe for pregnant women to take the medications listed above. Patients should communicate any concerns to their doctors.

What Else Can I Do For RLS?

The Mayo Clinic recommends avoiding or limiting caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco products. RLS sufferers can also try massaging their legs in warm bath water. Other interventions include:

  • Exercise: Activities such as walking, yoga, or gentle stretching can offer relief.
  • Revamp your sleep environment and nighttime routine: Avoid using digital devices in bed, and keep your bedroom cool, dark, and quiet. A soothing nighttime ritual will signal your body and mind that it’s time to sleep.
  • Use Ice Packs or a Heating Pad: Web MD suggests applying cool packs or heat to the legs to calm sensations.

What If Nothing Works?

Don’t give up hope. If one medication or intervention doesn’t work, don’t be afraid to try another. The same goes for physicians; it never hurts to get a second or third opinion. It often takes time to find the right doctor and intervention(s) to alleviate RLS symptoms. Though this trial and error process can be draining, the end result can be life-changing.

5) Narcolepsy


If you’re like the majority of sleep-deprived people, daytime naps are at the top of your wish list. Those with narcolepsy, however, dream of making it through the day without nodding off.

Narcolepsy is a chronic sleep disorder that causes periods of abrupt tiredness during the day and sudden onset of sleep. Individuals with the condition can struggle to complete daily tasks due to “sleep attacks” that come without warning.

While narcolepsy can’t be cured, recent research has led to better understanding and treatment options for this commonly misunderstood condition. We demystify the disorder below.

Symptoms of Narcolepsy

Many narcolepsy symptoms aren’t exclusive to the condition. The primary symptom is excessive daytime sleepiness, according to Other symptoms common in those who are narcoleptic include:

  • Cataplexy: This sudden loss of muscle tone can cause weakness in muscles and slurred speech. Cataplexy can last anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes.
  • Sleep Paralysis: People with narcolepsy often feel paralyzed when falling asleep and waking. This temporary paralysis—which lasts a few seconds to a few minutes—can be distressing.
  • Hallucinations: Along with sleep paralysis, many folks with narcolepsy experience vivid hallucinations just before falling asleep. Because these images appear to be real, they often cause a panic or fearful response. Visual hallucinations are most common, but other senses may be impacted.
  • Nighttime Sleep Disturbance: Frequently waking in the night and trouble falling back to sleep are common symptoms.
  • Memory Lapses: Because many people with narcolepsy are tired during their waking hours, they often forget interactions or experiences. These lapses can also occur during routine or mindless activities.
  • Other Sleep Disorders: Along with common narcolepsy symptoms, some people have co-occurring sleep disorders, such as insomnia, restless leg syndrome, and sleep apnea.
  • Involuntary Movement During Sleep: Another symptom people may experience is flailing limbs while dreaming. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke explains that “dreams occur during REM sleep, and the brain keeps muscles limp during this sleep stage, which prevents people from acting out their dreams.” This is not the case for some narcoleptics.
  • Automatic Behavior: Some people with narcolepsy continue automatic tasks such as typing or driving during brief period of daytime sleep, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Potential Causes of Narcolepsy

Although the cause of narcolepsy is unknown, many sufferers have lower levels of a neurochemical called hypocretin, which is needed to regulate sleep.

Some research also shows that narcolepsy may run in families.

Why Getting Help Is Important

Narcolepsy often affects daily life and can be particularly difficult in work or school situations. Some common problems associated with the condition are:

  • Widespread Misconception: Many people don’t understand narcolepsy and assume narcoleptics are simply lazy.
  • Low Sex Drive: Some people report lack of sex drive or impotence.
  • Fear of Emotion: Narcoleptics may avoid emotional situations, as strong feelings can cause symptoms.
  • Obesity: Many people with the condition are overweight or obese.
  • A Risk of Harm: Sudden onset of daytime sleep can lead to accidents.

Anyone experiencing narcolepsy symptoms that are impacting their daily lives should make an appointment with a physician. It’s important to take a list of symptoms, current medications, and questions for the doctor. Keeping a sleep diary is also helpful to determine patterns.

What To Do for Narcolepsy Treatment

Physicians can do a variety of tests to determine if a patient has narcolepsy. Once diagnosed, several treatment options are available:

  • Medications: Stimulants, SSRIs, and certain antidepressants may be prescribed, depending on the individual’s symptoms.
  • Good Sleep Hygiene: Setting a sleep schedule is often helpful for people with narcolepsy.
  • Short Naps: Regular daily naps of 20 minutes may help with alertness.
  • Mindful Movement: Regular exercise early in the day is recommended for daytime alertness and promotes nighttime sleep.
  • Avoid or Limit Alcohol and Tobacco Products: These substances can worsen symptoms.

Organizations such as NINDS continue to conduct research on narcolepsy, as well as educating the public and advocating for those who live with the condition. It’s important that sufferers are open with loved ones, employers, and colleagues to voice their specific needs. Counseling and support groups can provide additional emotional support. Mental and emotional help is just as important as physical health.

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