An estimated 40 million Americans have a sleep disorder such as insomnia, sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome — that’s about 12 percent of the population. Not only are sleep disorders incredibly common, they can be detrimental to your health.
“There’s something restorative about sleep,” said Dr. Eric Dyken, a neurologist at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics who specializes in sleep disorders. “People use sleep deprivation for torture. … If you’re sleep deprived and fall asleep behind the wheel of a 40-ton rig, people may go to the grave.”
Sleep is important for your well-being. Not getting that recommended seven to nine hours each night can affect short-term and long-term memory, lead to mood changes, and make it difficult to concentrate, said Dr. John Roof, the medical director for UnityPoint Health in Cedar Rapids and a family medicine physician.
What’s more, not getting enough sleep can increase your risk of having diabetes, a stroke, heart disease and depression. So when do your poor sleep habits mean you should see a doctor?
“There are millions of things that can mess with sleep,” said Dyken. It’s important to talk with your family practitioner, he said, to see if a referral is needed to see a sleep specialist.
“I know, when I first had apnea, I woke up with terrible chest pain — I thought I was drowning,” Dyken added. “Not all sleep disorders need a sleep lab … but sleep apnea is one of those big things that does because you need to see the severity.”
Insurance typically covers these procedures, he said. “Insurance companies know that you will live longer and better if you have air at night, but it needs to be justified.”
Loud snoring, gasping for breath or stopping breathing are all signs that you may have sleep apnea, said Roof. “If you wake up with morning headaches — that means your oxygen content gets low, which is a stressor on the system.”
If poor sleep has interfered with more than four weeks of daily activities or functions, you should probably call a doctor, Roof added, or if a new medication is interfering with sleep cycles.
“You shouldn’t assume it’ll go away,” he said. “After a few days or nights, check in with a health care provider or pharmacist.”
Having trouble catching a good night’s sleep? Our experts offer some tips.
1. Have a routine bedtime — A bedtime isn’t just for kids, said Roof. Go to sleep and wake up at roughly the same time every day. This helps sets your internal clock.
2. The primary use of your bedroom should be to sleep — don’t study or exercise in there. Instead, make it an environment conducive to sleeping. Make sure it’s cool, dark and comfortable. “The bedroom is for sleep or sex, not the bills or worry,” said Dyken.
3. Try to avoid naps — An afternoon catnap may seem like a good idea when you’re falling behind on sleep, physicians said, but it’s best to avoid overly long naps or too many naps in one week.
4. Don’t drink caffeine late at night, and limit your alcohol use, too — This may seem like a no-brainer, but caffeine late in the day will keep you up at night. Depending on your sensitivity, avoid the stimulant between four and six hours before bed. And while alcohol may seem like a sedative, it will increase the number of times you wake up at night and decrease the overall quality of sleep.
5. Exercise — Like with so many other things in life, establishing a regular exercise routine will make your sleep better. But it’s better to do it earlier in the day, Roof said. Like caffeine, it can be a stimulant and keep you awake if done too close to bedtime.