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Signs You Have a Sleep Disorder, According to Neurologist

Everything to know about sleep disorders.

We've all had trouble falling asleep from time to time and having a weary morning as a result, but when it happens consistently you could have a sleep disorder, according to neurologists. There's about 80 different sleep disorders and an average of 70 million Americans suffer from one, according to the Cleveland Clinic, which also states, "Common sleep disorders like insomnia, restless legs syndrome, narcolepsy and sleep apnea can affect every aspect of your life including your safety, relationships, school and work performance, thinking, mental health, weight and the development of diabetes and heart disease. Not getting enough quality sleep can hurt your quality of life." Eat This, Not That! Health spoke with neurologists who explained what a sleep disorder exactly is and signs you may have one. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


What is a Sleep Disorder and How Does One Affect Our Health?

Sad Woman Lying On Bed

Dr. Thomas Hammond, neurologist for Baptist Health's Marcus Neuroscience Institute explains, "A sleep disorder is any abnormality in sleep function – difficulty initiating sleep, difficulty maintaining sleep, abnormal behavior during sleep (e.g., Rapid Eye Movement (REM) behavior disorder or acting out on dreams) or abnormal, inappropriate initiation of sleep like narcolepsy where you're sitting down talking and suddenly fall asleep during the conversation. The most common sleep disorders deal with initiation of sleep and maintaining sleep. There's a lot of focus on sleep in recent years. In general, we're best off if we can get around 7 hours of sleep a night. If we start going much lower than that, the brain doesn't seem to function as well long term. Excess of sleep beyond 8 to 9 hours may be associated with the eventual development of dementia, so you want to keep your sleep duration in the appropriate range over time. What commonly gets in the way of getting adequate sleep are challenges like work and child rearing."

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Can You Treat or Cure a Sleep Disorder?

Man sitting on bed about to take sleeping pill or night medicine. Suffering from insomnia

Dr. Hammond says, "It depends on which pigeonhole the sleep disorder falls into. With a narcoleptic, you have to work on keeping him or her awake and from falling asleep inappropriately. These patients are usually given a form of a stimulant during the daytime, so they are not falling asleep during the day. This will also help to improve their sleep at night. People who struggle with initiation of sleep need a sleep aid. Additionally, they usually need to improve their sleep hygiene."

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Why Does the Brain Need So Much Sleep?

Doctor examines MRI scan of head, neck and brain of patient

"Occasionally, there's rare people who don't need as much sleep as the rest of us," says Dr. Hammond. "I think Thomas Edison never got more than 2 or 3 hours of sleep and did a lot of sharp stuff. Sleep plays a role in the brain's physiology. During Rapid Eye Movement or REM sleep, the brain is recharging its battery. Each of the sleep stages has its importance and it's not good to depress any of them. That's why certain medications that may lead to sleep, but eliminate REM sleep, may not be good in the long run if you use them every night. We advise dodging the use of sleep aids daily if it can be avoided."

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Signs and Symptoms of a Potential Sleep Disorder

Woman Covering Her Ears With Pillow While Man Snoring

Dr. Dalia Lorenzo, neurologist at Baptist Health's Miami Neuroscience Institute shares, "Most people don't realize they have a sleep disorder. The most common is sleep apnea. People with sleep apnea unfortunately have destructive breathing – air doesn't make it all the way down and oxygen levels start to drop. When the brain is not getting enough oxygen, it sends a message to wake up. People with sleep apnea can spend the whole night in light sleep, never getting into deeper layers of sleep because, every time they do, they are suffocating. A person with sleep apnea can spend 10-14 hours in bed and never feel refreshed because they never sleep deeply." Dr. Lorenzo shares that to diagnose sleep apnea, the symptoms they look for are loud snoring, daytime sleeping (people who fall asleep during meetings/falling asleep at the wheel) and are overweight. Other disorders include restless legs and sleep walking."

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Restless Legs

Woman lying in the bed and suffering from leg muscle cramps

According to Dr. Hammond, "Restless legs is really a movement disorder and not exactly a sleep disorder. It's a movement abnormality best defined as a feeling or need to move the legs when you're trying to rest. Most people with restless legs find it to be bothersome when they are trying to relax. For example, when they try to watch television or read a book. Instead, they can't relax, feeling the need to walk around. It's oftentimes associated with peripheral neuropathy where the longer nerves in the legs are damaged. Restless legs tends to be a nocturnal event, however, some people with the disorder will experience this restlessness throughout the whole day. We have a whole collection of pharmacology that seems to help restless legs, but the idea is to keep medications low to quiet it down. The medications used to treat restless legs are often similar to what are used in Parkinson's patients, but at a much lower dose."

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Falling Asleep Too Fast 


"Falling asleep too fast is a sleep phenomenon that usually falls into the category of narcolepsy," Dr. Hammond states. "Narcoleptics may experience sudden weakness and loss of motor tone (muscle atonia) where they collapse to the ground. Common triggers for this condition include telling jokes or humor, and also sudden anxiety or concern, such as receiving terrible, unexpected news. There are medications that can be used to treat this sleep disorder, usually in the stimulant variety that alerts these patients during the day. In this instance, medication would be taken in the morning and not past mid-day."

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Eating in Your Sleep

middle aged man in gray shirt and sleep mask sleeping with mouth open
Shutterstock /

Dr. Hammond reveals, "In my experience, this type of behavior, such as eating in your sleep, occurs with the use of fast acting hypnotics like Ambien or Lunesta, prescribed as a sleep aid. Oftentimes, this odd behavior occurs at night and the patient has no memory of what happened." 

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Man feet at home in pajamas and winter slippers

Dr. Hammond explains, "While we sleep, our muscle tone diminishes. It's called muscle atonia. The only muscle that is really working well is the diaphragm, so we are breathing fine, but our other muscles are basically paralyzed. There are also a lot of brain stem switches in the lower brain that can help control sleep. If the switches don't work correctly, then a lot of problematic stuff can happen. For example, if muscle tone doesn't get turned off, then we are able to move around and do stuff in our dreams that we shouldn't be able to do otherwise like sleepwalk."

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Rapid Eye Movement (REM)

woman sleeping at night with eye mask

"Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep behavior disorders are when people start to act out their dreams during sleep," Dr. Hammond says. "Aside from sleepwalking, another symptom of a REM behavior disorder is experiencing chronic nightmares where you scream out loud and/or literally run from what is frightening you in your nightmare."

Dr. Lorenzo adds, "Not a lot of people know about REM behavior disorder, but it's where individuals start to act out their dreams. In order for us to not act out our dreams, the brain sends stimuli to paralyze us, so our brains are active, but our muscles are paralyzed. What can happen is some people can later lose this paralysis. While this can be caused by certain medications and alcohol consumption, if it's not, it can be a warning sign that Parkinson's disease is on the horizon in the next 10 years."

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What is a Neurological Issue and Why Do Sleep Behaviors Trigger Them?

Neurology Consultation Woman

Dr. Hammond explains, "Neurology is an area of medicine that deals with central nervous system conditions. Some neurologic conditions include epilepsy; seizures; stroke; back, neck and spine issues; brain, skull base and spine tumors; brain injuries; and movement and nerve disorders. Movement disorders are complex neurological conditions that cause involuntary or abnormal movements or affect your ability to control movements. Oftentimes, REM behavior sleep disorder can be a precursor to developing Parkinson's disease or other neurodegenerative disorders, such as Lewy body dementia or multiple system atrophy. With Alzheimer's patients, it's not so clear that sleep is a major issue. Alzheimer's patients become apathetic and disinterested, tending to not be active during the day. A lot of times, their clocks get all messed up and they stay up until 3 am watching television. It's this lack of activity during the day that leads them to have poor sleep at night because they're not tired when they go to bed."

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Good Habits We Should Practice To Get Better Sleep

Senior woman in bed, watching TV late at night.

According to Dr. Hammond, "Sleep hygiene plays a critical role toward getting a good night's rest. Oftentimes, people are going to bed and lying there watching TV or reading a book and it's not conducive to falling asleep. They shouldn't be doing activities in the bed other than going to sleep. People need to regulate their brains to make their bedroom a place for sleep – and sleep only. It's not a place for working on the computer or watching television. Additionally, blue light exposure should be avoided an hour or two before going to bed because it interferes with initiation of sleep. Other tips to improve sleep hygiene include eliminating caffeine 4 to 5 hours before bed and reducing intake of fluids a couple of hours before bed."

Dr. Lorenzo emphasizes, "The importance of quality of sleep and how an ideal sleep environment and routine can prevent disorders: Sleep hygiene is important to getting a good night's rest. "Many people who have trouble sleeping surprisingly ignore the fact that a pet is causing interruptions, or a TV is blaring in the room. A good website to read up for healthy sleep habits and sleep hygiene tips is"  

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Importance of Prioritizing Sleep


Dr. Lorenzo says, "Sleep is super important. If you calculate that you need 7 hours of sleep every 24 hours for 80 years, that's a lot of years of sleep time. There must be an important function behind us sleeping so much and … there is. When you sleep, you enter an orchestrated set of different stages. It's a very active process that is very important for the neurons, who make us the people we are, to refresh themselves." As for how much sleep people should get, Dr. Lorenzo advises that most people need seven hours of sleep a night. However, when people volitionally curtail their sleep, it can create problems down the road. "People take sleep for granted. They think they can get more hours in their day by taking it away from sleep – not from the television, not from the phone, but from sleep. They don't know what they are doing. While they can do this for a while, eventually they will start to pay the price. Studies have shown that people in their 50s or 60s who get less than six hours of sleep nightly have a higher risk of developing dementia later in life."

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How Substances Can Impact Sleep


Dr. Lorenzo explains, "Substances can present problems in achieving quality sleep, especially caffeine and alcohol. Alcohol, when consumed chronically before bed, induces changes in the electrical activity in the brain that don't go away, leading to interrupted sleep."  Talk to a doctor is any of this concerns you, and to protect your life and the lives of others, don't visit any of these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.

Heather Newgen
Heather Newgen has two decades of experience reporting and writing about health, fitness, entertainment and travel. Heather currently freelances for several publications. Read more about Heather
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