Sleepwake Disorders

Getting a good night’s sleep is essential for the body to feel energized and rested. Sleep performs many restorative functions and helps us perform better in our daily lives. Without good rest, we might feel cranky and, at times, disorienting. However, sleep disturbances are becoming very common these days and certainly affecting the quality of life. People are now increasingly facing problems in falling asleep or staying awake.

What are Sleep-Wake Disorders?

Sleep-wake disorders are a cluster of disorders that involve problems in falling asleep or staying awake. They affect many people, and there can be one or multiple causes behind their occurrence. On average human body needs about seven to eight hours of sleep daily to function effectively. In sleep-wake disorders, a person suffers from abnormal sleep routines causing several problems such as lack of focus or irritability. Sleep quality is disturbed, causing problems in REM sleep (Rapid Eye Movement) and non- REM sleep. It is important to discuss terms such as circadian system and REM sleep to understand sleep-wake disorders.

Circadian system- This refers to the body's internal clock that facilitates daily functions such as sleep, concentration, or eating patterns. Circadian rhythms are produced by the suprachiasmatic nucleus, a specific brain region, and light also affects the rhythm's timing. Normal circadian rhythms help people stay awake throughout the day and sleep at night by being in sync with the environment. However, when people have sleep-wake disorders, an abnormality is observed in this rhythm. When the rhythms go out of sync, people have sleep disorders.

REM refers to rapid eye movement. In this stage of sleep, the eyes move quickly in various directions when a person is asleep. However, the brain is not receiving any visual signals from the eye. These movements do not occur in non-REM sleep. Non-REM sleep comes first, followed by a short REM sleep period. REM duration initially lasts about ten minutes which gets longer with each cycle: heart rate and breathing quicken in this stage.

Types of Sleep-Wake Disorders

It includes:

Let’s discuss each one of them separately:

  • Sleep Apnea: In this disorder, a person's breathing repeatedly starts and stops while they are asleep. This is due to blockage in the airway passage, making individuals feel tired even after a good amount of sleep. Symptoms include Snoring, gasping for breath while asleep, episodes of breathlessness, fatigue in the daytime, difficulty falling or staying asleep, and feeling irritable.

  • Insomnia: This is a sleep disorder where individuals find it hard to stay asleep or fall asleep. This condition has three sub-types: transient, acute, and chronic. Symptoms include: Waking up at night, falling asleep, feeling drowsy the entire day, inability to concentrate, and errors in everyday functions due to lack of focus.

  • Restless-legs Syndrome: In this disorder, a person has an overwhelming urge to move their legs, especially asleep. It can occur at any time; however, in most cases occurs during the evening or night. Symptoms include: Urge to move legs, waking up at night due to constant urge to move limbs, lack of rest, feeling fatigued during the day, and daytime sleepiness.

  • Sleep Paralysis: This refers to a condition where a person experiences a temporary loss of muscle control when they are asleep. Symptoms include: a person experiences an inability to move or speak. There can be feelings of being pushed or falling and unable to stop. There can be fear of the unknown, hallucinations, or an urge to move the limbs but be unable to do so.

  • Somnambulism: Commonly referred to as sleepwalking, this condition refers to walking around when already asleep. This is most commonly found in children, but adults sleepwalk too. Symptoms include: Getting up in the bed and staring wide-eyed, walking around while asleep, being tough to wake up from sleep during sleepwalking, having a stoned or glassy expression while sleepwalking, feeling confused after waking up, and not remembering anything about the episode.

  • REM Sleep-related Disorders: A person acts out differently in this type of sleep disorder, often leading to violent arm or leg movement. Often known as dream enacting behavior, the individual may make unusual vocal sounds and sudden movements. Symptoms include kicking, punching, or hitting movements, and making sounds such as crying, screaming, or laughing. The person may be unable to recall their dreams.

  • Night Terror: This refers to screaming, wailing, or crying hysterically in response to fear. This is usually coupled with other problems such as sleepwalking or sleep apnea.

  • Jet lag-induced sleep problems occur when a person moves from one-time zone to another. Due to the shift in the time zone, the circadian rhythm can get out of sync, leading to excessive sleepiness for a few days until the body's rhythm returns to normal.

Causes of Sleep-Wake Disorders

Several factors are responsible for disturbances in the sleep patterns of an individual. Here is a list of them:

Mental health conditions: When a person suffers from anxiety or depression, falling asleep can become harder. Factors such as overthinking, low mood, sadness, or negative feelings can lead to a lack of sleep. Further, they do not feel rested enough, which makes them drowsy all day.

Circadian rhythm imbalance: This can be caused due to factors like jet lag, shift work, or substance use. In other cases, some other factors such as muscle pain or physical disorders such as having a fever or cold can disturb the rhythm.

Phone usage: The blue light on the phone or electronic devices like a laptop can cause strain to the eyes. Excessive mobile phone usage is becoming up to be one of the leading causes of disturbed sleep.

Traumatic memories: Traumatic memories can make it difficult to fall asleep as it traps individuals in a loop of thoughts. This over-thinking can potentially disturb the sleep cycle.


Treatment for sleep disorders includes a variety of methods. Limiting exposure to light and behavior modification therapies are some of them. Significant of them are:

Light therapy: When the body receives regular or artificial sunlight for about thirty to forty minutes a day, its internal clock can be set back to normal. The duration of light can be adjusted to the desired amount.

Exercise: An effective way to deal with sleep disorders is by keeping the body active and fit. Exercise can also help in conditions like restless legs syndrome. In cases of depression-induced sleep disorders, exercise plays an important role in increasing the dopamine levels of an individual.

Adjusting the eating habits: Consuming less saturated fats and increasing the amount of home-cooked healthy meals go a long way in improving health and sleep quality. Staying hydrated and avoiding caffeine before sleep time is important to get proper sleep.

Medication: Various medications can benefit a person suffering from chronic sleep disorders. These medications should only be taken after a doctor's consultation and under their supervision. These medications are addictive; hence one has to be very careful.


Sleep plays an important role in our life. It helps us feel rested, repair bones, and improve immunity. Sleep helps to de-clutter the mind and acts as an incubation time for the brain. It also enables the mind to sort out memories. Additionally, sleep plays other important roles, such as helping the body relax. A good night's sleep is essential for better work productivity and staying focused. Sleep-wake disorders can severely interrupt the well-being of individuals. They can be caused because of many reasons, which are biological, environmental, and psychological. In addition, they cause discomforts such as fatigue, loss of concentration, and errors in daily functioning. It is therefore important to pay serious attention if one suffers from these disorders. It is important to seek help and work on building better sleep hygiene.


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