Raise your hand if this morning ritual sounds familiar: After punching the lights out of the snooze button a few times, you finally peel yourself off your bed and stumble into the bathroom. As you're brushing your teeth in slow-mo, with your hair standing up in every direction, you stare at your own hot mess in the mirror. For a quick minute, you seriously contemplate quitting your job and living in your PJs for the rest of your life. Everyone's been there, darling, and this morning drudgery is totally normal for many of us. But when the desperate need to catch some Z's starts getting in the way of your daily life, a real problem may be lurking beneath the surface.
According to Robert Oexman, director of the Sleep to Live Institute, approximately 40 million Americans suffer from sleep disorders and—as if being a chica isn't already tough enough—women are more susceptible to insomnia due to the changes in their sleeping patterns brought on by menstruation, pregnancy, and menopause. And the health effects aren't anything to snore at, either: "Insufficient quantity and quality of sleep can lead to daytime fatigue, decreased ability to focus on tasks, increased risk of motor vehicle accidents, and poor performance at work and school," he says. "Research has also shown a link between poor sleep and increased risk of depression, anxiety, heart disease, weight gain, Type 2 diabetes, and some forms of cancer."
Spotting your own sleep disorder isn't always easy, though. "Because the side effects of poor sleep are so broad, people often do not associate lack of sleep with the symptoms they are having," says Oexman. "For example, if someone is suffering from depression and heightened anxiety, they may assume the problem is their stressful job or raising children on their own. In fact, they may be able to manage their depression and anxiety if they focused on getting more sleep."
So if you and your sleep schedule aren't exactly simpatico, when is it your cue to see a doctor? Asking yourself these five questions will help you figure out if your troubled slumber is something serious.
Taking a quick daytime nap here and there to recharge your batteries is no biggie—it even has its benefits. But if you're getting a full seven hours of sleep each night and you still can't keep your peepers open during everyday activities like driving, working, or eating, something's up. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) cites sudden, extreme and unavoidable bouts of sleep as one of the key signs of narcolepsy—a brain disorder that throws your sleep-wake cycle completely out of whack. Other possible symptoms include hallucinations, abrupt limpness, and paralysis either before or after a "sleep attack."
Worried you might be narcoleptic? "Try increasing your sleep time by 30 minutes for a week, and repeat if necessary," says Oexman. "If you are still fatigued during the day [and can't remain awake during regular activities], seek out a qualified sleep professional for a consultation."
We asked a hot doc some of your most burning questions:
Occasionally, there will be times when the stress of the day will keep your eyelids cranked open at night. And that's okay: You're not a robot, so you can't expect to slip into a coma-like slumber every time your head hits the pillow. But if snoozing has become a constant losing battle, then you might be struggling with insomnia and not even know it.
"Six to 10 percent of the population has chronic insomnia, which involves taking 30 minutes or more to fall asleep and/or return to sleep, three or more nights per week for at least three months," says Lisa Medalie, PsyD, C.B.S.M., behavioral sleep medicine specialist at The University of Chicago. "Those experiencing it often develop 'conditioned arousal,' which means they spend so much time feeling anxious and frustrated in bed that their bed begins to cue that state of anxiety or frustration. They become preoccupied trying to compensate for their sleep loss—spending more time in bed, napping, etc.—and make extensive effort to do whatever is possible to sleep. Unfortunately, the harder they try, the less likely they are to sleep."
Insomnia can be treated in a number of ways—including prescription medication, herbal remedies, acupuncture, meditation, and cognitive behavioral therapy—so there's sense in trying to put up with sleepless nights. The sooner you tell your doctor about your symptoms and ask for a full evaluation, the quicker you'll be on your way to getting the rest you need.
We're not talking your typical tossing and turning here. We're talking bucking bronco–level leg kicks and full-body flailing. If you're sleeping and are suddenly hit with a tingling sensation or numbness in your legs that can only be temporarily relieved by moving your stems wildly about, Medalie says this could be a big, waving red flag that you have restless legs syndrome, or RLS. The condition is technically categorized as a movement disorder, but the continuous need to shift the position of your legs while lying in bed in order to stave off the uncomfortable sensations deals a huge blow to your sleep sched.
According to the NINDS, 10 percent of adults in the United States may have RLS. And while it occurs in both men and women, the incidence rate in women is double that of men. "It is [also] more common in pregnant women than in non-pregnant women," she explains. "One study from Japan showed that 15 percent of women had RLS by their first trimester, and 23 percent had it by their third trimester."
There's no cure for RLS, but your doctor can help you target the best method for keeping your symptoms under control. For example, if you have a medical condition that is associated with RLS, like diabetes, then treating the medical condition will help tone down the RLS. They may even suggest making some lifestyle tweaks, like taking supplements and/or medication; avoiding caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco; or starting a moderate exercise program.
While our alarm clocks help keep us honest when we need to wake up for work or an appointment, we also have an internal clock that keeps our sleeping patterns in check throughout the day and night. It's called a circadian rhythm and, just like an actual clock, it can sometimes spin out of control. If your patterns are all over the place, a circadian rhythm sleep disorder (CRSD) may be to blame.
There are several different types of CRSDs out there, so it's important to let your doctor know why your sleep schedule is being disrupted, whether it's an inconsistent work schedule, jet lag due to frequent travel and time changes, etc. For instance, "shift work (not the traditional nine-to-five schedule) has been shown to increase the likeliness of [an irregular sleep/wake schedule, as well as] illness and depression," says Oexman. When you and your doc have identified what's throwing your timing off, you can then work together to figure out which treatment might best alleviate your specific CRSD symptoms. In addition to prescribing you medication, sleep aids, and sleep-regulating melatonin supplements, your doctor might also recommend that you make behavioral changes as part of your regimen. These can include (but aren't limited to) avoiding caffeine before bedtime, minimizing your exposure to electronic devices that emit bright light (cell phones, computers, etc.), or getting regular exercise. Some also benefit from light therapy, which uses timed exposure to a high-intensity light box to reset your internal clock, so to speak.
A soft, open-mouth snore might stir you up from your siesta once in a while, but it's most likely not going to hurt you. But you should be concerned if you find yourself having trouble breathing in the wee hours of the night. Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a sleep-related breathing disorder in which your airway collapses while you're asleep, causing you to loudly gasp, choke, or experience a pause in your breathing mid-slumber.
Aside from being absolutely terrifying for both you and your sleeping partner, OSA can cause other significant health problems, like hypertension, Type 2 diabetes, and stroke, according to Medalie. "Sleep apnea is also often associated with weight gain and heart failure in women after menopause, which is when 25 percent of women develop sleep apnea," she says. Because the condition requires long-term management, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute says the most successful treatment options for OSA include wearing a specialized mouthpiece, using a breathing device during sleep, or getting surgery.
Long story short: If you think you might have a major sleeping prob, don't keep it to yourself. "Mention your sleep habits to your doctor at annual checkups and whenever you are sick," says Oexman. "Do not rely long-term on over-the-counter sleep medications; there are other ways to treat a sleep disorder if you have one."