At least 40 million Americans suffer from chronic sleep disorders each year. Most of these can be managed well once they are correctly diagnosed. Two of the most common are insomnia and sleep apnea.
Many people experience short-term insomnia. This problem can result from stress, jet lag, diet, or many other factors. Insomnia almost always affects job or school performance and well-being the next day. Insomnia tends to increase with age. It affects about 40 percent of women and 30 percent of men.
For short-term insomnia, doctors may prescribe sleeping pills. Mild insomnia often can be prevented or cured by practicing good sleep habits. One “good sleep” tip is going to bed at the same time each night and getting up at the same time each morning. Another is relaxing with a warm bath or good book before bed.
An estimated 18 million Americans have sleep apnea. However, few of them have had the problem diagnosed. Sleep apnea is a disorder of interrupted breathing during sleep. It usually occurs in association with fat buildup or loss of muscle tone with aging.
These changes allow the windpipe to collapse during breathing when muscles relax during sleep. This problem is called obstructive sleep apnea. It is usually associated with loud snoring, though not everyone who snores has this disorder. Sleep apnea can also occur if the neurons that control breathing malfunction during sleep.
During an episode of obstructive apnea, the person’s effort to inhale air creates suction that collapses the windpipe. This blocks the air flow for 10 seconds to a minute while the sleeping person struggles to breathe.
When the person’s blood oxygen level falls, the brain responds by awakening the person enough to tighten the upper airway muscles and open the windpipe. The person may snort or gasp and then resume snoring. This cycle may be repeated hundreds of times a night.
The frequent awakenings that sleep apnea patients experience leave them continually sleepy. Sleep apnea also deprives the person of oxygen, which can lead to morning headaches or a decline in mental functioning. It is also linked to high blood pressure and an increased risk of heart attacks and stroke.
Many treatments are available for sleep apnea. Mild sleep apnea often can be overcome through weight loss or by preventing the person from sleeping on his or her back. Other people may need special devices or surgery to correct the problem. People with sleep apnea should never take sleeping pills; they may prevent a person from awakening enough to breathe.