There are many myths and misconceptions about healthy sleep. This may be, in part, because as research shows, different people do have different sleep needs—making it difficult to give a single definition of healthy sleep. Research does show, however, that the majority of adults need at least 7 hours of sleep within every 24-hour period, and some need more than that. Healthy sleep is also consistent from night to night and relatively uninterrupted—with very little waking during the night.
Most everyone will experience the occasional sleepless or restless night that results in being exceptionally tired the next day, this is normal as long as it doesn’t happen too often. During adolescence and young adulthood, the typical time to fall asleep naturally shifts to later in the night making people in this age group more prone to stay up late into the night and sleep during the day. However, when sleepless nights or daytime sleepiness occur with regular frequency--whether daily, weekly, or monthly--it may be a sign of a sleep disorder.
Sleep disorders can be broadly categorized into:
It is important to talk with your family physician or primary care doctor about your sleep and sleep habits, because healthy sleep effects overall health and can improve or worsen many other health conditions. Thinking about and understanding how well you sleep and how often you are tired is an important first step.
If you or your primary care physician have concerns about your sleep, it is a good idea to see a sleep specialist and be tested. There are 4 major tests for sleep disorders.
The technical term for a sleep study is polysomnography (paul-ee-som-nog-ra-fee). Many measurements are taken during a sleep study to understand what is happening to your body and breathing while you sleep. These include:
A full sleep study is done at a sleep center where people are monitored around the clock by sleep technologists and nurses. Video recordings may be taken simultaneously to match behaviors with the body signals measured. At home studies to test the likelihood of sleep apnea include some, but not all of the above measurements.
Multiple Sleep Latency Test
Also called a daytime nap test, the multiple sleep latency test (MSLT) measures how easily a person falls asleep during the daytime after a night of at least 6 hours of sleep. The MSLT is also done in a sleep study center, usually the day after a sleep study. During the MSLT, a person takes 4-5 naps, each 2 hours apart, while being monitored for body signals similar to the polysomnogram. If they do not fall asleep after 20 minutes, that nap is ended. If they do fall asleep, they are allowed to nap for 15 minutes before being awoken to wait for the next nap.
Maintenance of Wakefulness Test
During the maintenance of wakefulness test (MWT) a person spends 4 periods, separated by breaks, of up to 40 minutes in bed trying to stay awake the whole time. Monitors are used to determine when sleep begins and if someone does fall asleep, they are woken and take a break until the next period of the test. This test is also taken after a night of at least 6 hours of sleep.
Actigraphy (with or without sleep diaries)
A clinical activity-and-light monitor (somewhat similar to consumer products like Fitbit) is worn on the wrist for about 2 weeks in order to monitor daily sleep patterns. This test gives information on sleep habits in a person’s natural environment and can be used to screen for circadian rhythm disorders as well as to gather data on disorders of excessive or insufficient sleep.
Maintaining a healthy sleep routine, also called sleep hygiene, are often the first steps people take to improve and keep sleep healthy regardless of what disorders are present. Good sleep hygiene consists of the following:
Sleep related breathing disorders are treated with devices that keep a person’s airway (the path to the lungs) open. This may be a breathing mask that delivers positive airway pressure (PAP) through a mask in order to keep the airway puffed open, like blowing up a balloon. Some people have a hard time wearing a PAP mask and sleeping. Oral devices that fit over the teeth and keep the lower jaw in a forward position can also be used to keep the airway open during sleep. Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight is another important part of managing sleep related breathing disorders.
The proven most effective treatment for insomnia is a specific therapy program, cognitive-behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I). In this program, people work with a therapist to change the way they think and act in relation to sleep. When good sleep hygiene and CBT-I are not enough to improve sleep, medications, including melatonin and sedatives, may be helpful.
Occasionally, individuals will have a physical (genetics, central nervous system dysfunction, etc.) cause for excessive sleepiness. For people with severe hypersomnias, stimulants or antidepressants may be prescribed by a doctor. If the excessive sleepiness is caused by a sleep disorder or a behavioral issue, the treatment is to correct the underlying problem, rather than to treat the symptom.
Circadian cycle disorders are most effectively treated with a structured sleep-wake schedule including bright light therapy, exercise and diet timing recommendations, and sometimes melatonin.
Behaviors during parasomnia can be very disturbing and sometimes violent but are typically not a sign of psychiatric or mental health problems. Good sleep hygiene and medications (eg, melatonin, antidepressants, and sedatives) are used to treat parasomnias. A person performing activities of any kind while unconscious and sleeping can endanger themselves and others. It is important to make the bedroom a safe environment by padding sharp corners, removing dangerous weapons and sharp objects, and sometimes having timed locks on doors and windows.
Sleep movement disorder treatment varies depending on the disorder. Restless leg syndrome may be treated with iron supplements and other medications. Teeth grinding may be managed with dental devices that fit over the teeth and keep the jaw from fully closing during sleep. Other sleep movement disorders are treated similarly to the parasomnias.
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