Sleep Disorder: What You weren’t told
Having a sleep disorder is worrying. When the problem persists, it can become completely disabling. Today, 1 out of 2 Quebecers has trouble sleeping. How about you?
You're part of the statistics if you're not sleeping well and are concerned about it.
Perhaps this is not your first time seeking solutions to your sleep disorder. And maybe you've already tried some strategies to deal with it.
You know: cut down on coffee, avoid alcohol, banish screen time in the evening, eat well, move around, do this, avoid that, etc.
Did it work?
Despite your efforts, it's possible that sleeping is still tricky. Getting a good night's sleep is not as simple as finding the right sleeping routine for many people.
And that, you probably weren't told.
The « good sleep » tips are a starting point. When they're not enough, we need to explore other solutions—that's what we're talking about today.
Let's start fresh: what's a sleep disorder?
First, let's agree on what a sleep disorder is.
« Not sleeping well » is the most concrete definition you'll find. That's it.
Simple, practical, and much less intimidating than the words « sleep cycle dysfunction » pronounced by the doctor, right?
Now you know that a sleep disorder doesn't necessarily mean insomnia. Over-sleeping or restlessness is also part of the spectrum of these disorders—yes, « disorders » written with an « « s. » There are many of them!
The different types of sleep disorders
Knowing the types of sleep disorders means discovering that some solutions may better suit your situation than others.
Let's talk about the two largest classes: dyssomnias and parasomnias (both very worthy of a Trivia question on your next game night!).
Dyssomnias (Ouch! Almost sounds like poetry)
Dyssomnias are disorders that affect the quality or duration of your sleep and have consequences during the day (fatigue, headaches, etc.). They include 3 subcategories:
- Lack of sleep (the infamous insomnias—there are many of these too)
- Too much sleep (hypersomnia such as narcolepsy)
- Sleep-wake rhythm disorders (think of problems caused by jet lag or odd working hours)
Parasomnias are abnormal, uncontrollable behaviors that occur during your sleep. Unlike dyssomnias, they do not cause you to be less alert or tired when awake. This type of sleep disorder includes:
- Night terrors
- Bruxism (teeth grinding)
- Sleep apnea (involuntary cessation of breathing)
Be aware that each subclass of dyssomnia or parasomnia needs a different treatment. A solution for insomnia is therefore ineffective for a person with sleep apnea and vice versa.
If you think you have a sleep disorder, the first step is to know what type of problem you have. A trusted healthcare professional will be the best person to help you in this quest.
Things we rarely mention about sleep disorders
Insomnia is the queen of all
Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder. In Quebec, up to 30% of people have been suffering from this problem for more than a year. Researchers in sleep medicine even agree that it is now a public health issue.
Cortisol is a hormone that the body naturally secretes and influences your ability to fall asleep. Being a woman and having a high cortisol level predisposes you to insomnia. FYI: Stress can raise your cortisol level—we'll talk about it in detail later on.
Causes that can trigger the first episode of insomnia include
- Stressful life events (busy schedule, moving, job loss... a global pandemic)
- Changes in family situation (child's birth, breakups, grief)
- Living in a noisy environment (think of living in a city or when your new neighbors were party animals)
- Hormonal changes caused by menopause and aging
Contrary to popular belief, bad sleep habits and lifestyles do not cause insomnia. Essentially, they make it last over time and make it far worse.
Sleep is the result of a hormone cascade in your body
Three hormones naturally present in your body regulate the sleep-wake rhythm. They are serotonin, melatonin, and cortisol. You may already know them as the happiness, sleep, and wakefulness hormones.
Serotonin helps produce melatonin, which is a counterbalance to cortisol. Roughly speaking, the happiness hormone allows the production of the sleep hormone, which reduces the action of the wakefulness hormone at the right time.
In the morning, between 6 and 8 o'clock, your cortisol level is at its maximum to wake you up. This level stays high in the morning and decreases throughout the afternoon. It reaches its minimum around 8 p.m. Your cortisol should usually remain low until the next cycle.
On the other hand, your melatonin level increases in the evening and counteracts the effect of cortisol. You then feel tired and want to go to bed... unless something like stress messes things up.
You now understand how a lack of serotonin can affect melatonin, cortisol, and sleep quality. It's a domino-like effect.
By the way, anxiety or lack of sunlight can induce a decrease in serotonin (hello seasonal depression!).
Studies even suggest that if you have insomnia, you probably experience more stress in your life. Your serotonin and cortisol levels may be lower and higher than expected, which also advises that melatonin may not be doing its job as a sandman.
Have a sleep disorder? What to do now?
Start with the basics. Establish a sleep routine and get back to good habits. Not too sure what to do? Refer to the insomnia guidelines presented here.
Don't forget to consult your doctor to rule out disease or sleep apnea.
If you already know that stress plays a significant role in your difficulty sleeping, optimize the work of your sleep hormone with a natural melatonin supplement. Also, consider starting CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy).
Sleep disorder natural treatments
Cognitive behavioral therapy: the best treatment for insomnia
This therapeutic technique is the most effective for treating insomnia induced by stress and anxiety. The goal is to change your perception of the problem and regain control over your anxious thoughts. CBT is also about working on your sleep hygiene and relaxation.
In about ten one-hour sessions with a psychologist or certified social worker, you can hope to improve your insomnia. It's even possible to do this remotely by videoconference.
Natural sleep supplements: your best daily support
There are herbal supplements with relaxing properties such as valerian, hops, Linden, and lemon balm. Added to your sleep routine, they are a natural treatment for the nervousness that keeps you awake and causes insomnia.
Melatonin in supplementation also helps you sleep faster. It promotes restful sleep in a safe and non-addictive manner. It is particularly recommended for sleep-wake rhythm disorders. Combined with a healthy lifestyle, a melatonin supplement in the proper dosage is a great ally to help your insomnia. If you want to start taking it but don't know where to begin, read the guide "How to choose the right melatonin" here.
Conclusion: getting rid of your sleep disorder for good
Living with a sleep disorder is painful, no matter the severity or cause. We are talking about both physical and psychological suffering.
There is no miracle cure. There are « good practices » to start with. Then, it's a healing process that is more or less long and specific to each person.
And what else weren't you told about your sleep disorder?
Before we even get you started on the best tips and tricks for a better night's sleep, we should tell you that slowing down (slowing down for real) is also part of the treatment.
In our lives, where nothing goes at the pace of nature anymore, insomnia is often the manifestation of a hidden and more profound pain.
Giving yourself the time and the right to gently welcome the problem and seek support that inspires you with confidence is what « taking care of yourself » truly means.
Here, we do tell you: gently, slowly, but surely.
Give yourself the chance to get back on track, sleep better at night, and love your life to its fullest every day.
All the best,
Adrien Gagnon Team