Health Column: No yawning: Studying sleep problems can lead to better health

By Dr. Fredric M. Radoff
Blount Memorial Hospital

Many of us sleep alone. Many of us sleep with other people. Many of us sleep with our pets. And, many of us sleep with
other people - and pets.

Since sleep is a normal part of our lives, and we spend much time asleep, the amount and quality of our sleep affects us and our relationships with others. Valentine’s Day, the reason for this article, arrives this month and it reminds us of our interpersonal relationships.

Today, though, we will discuss sleep and its disorders. We’ll look at what sleep is, why we sleep, the nature of sleep and its components, as well as normal sleep and some of the more common sleep problems.

Individuals normally need different amounts of sleep, and this requirement changes with age.

Sleep disorders can be grouped into categories in different ways, such as those causing excessive daytime sleepiness, or hypersomnias; the inability to fall asleep or stay asleep, also known as the insomnias; the abnormal movements and behaviors during sleep, commonly identified as the parasomnias; and the circadian rhythm disturbances that affect the timing of sleep in relation to the 24-hour day.

These can be a result of a problem with a person’s internal circadian timing system, something commonly referred to as the biological clock, that affects the timing of sleep during the 24-hour day or can be due to someone’s work schedule or from traveling into different time zones.

Poor-quality, non-refreshing sleep and sleep deprivation from any cause, acutely or chronically can affect alertness, memory, motivation, attention span, safety, job performance, income, academic performance, and can affect our mood and sense of well-being.

Sleep disorders can cause irritability, depression and anxiety. Sleepiness shows in our reaction times, resulting in safety concerns. For example, a sleepy person is at an increased risk of a motor vehicle accident or job safety issues.

All of these can affect our interpersonal relationships, too, because someone with a sleep disorder often causes significant problems for the bed partner. So, couples wind up sleeping separately, one in the bed and the other on the couch in another room. People who have obstructive sleep apnea usually snore loudly and have restless sleep, tossing and turning frequently, which is something that might aggravate a bed partner. Worrying whether a partner will start breathing again or kick or elbow you keeps both people awake.

Movements and activities associated with the parasomnias keep others awake, too. The restless leg syndrome (RLS) is associated with an uncomfortable feeling in the legs, which is relieved by leg movements.

Often, the person needs to get out of bed to walk around. RLS often is accompanied by periodic limb movements, which are repetitive involuntary leg or arm twitches or jerking movements that happen during sleep that can disturb bed partners.

Sleep stage REM, or rapid eye movement/dream sleep, can do more than disturb a bed partner. REM actually is frequently accompanied by violent limb movements that can accidentally injure someone’s bed partner.

Dr. Fredric M. Radoff is a neurologist specializing in sleep disorders medicine at The Center for Sleep Medicine, a partnership of Blount Memorial Hospital and East Tennessee Medical Group.

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