40 million Americans are estimated to be chronically ill with sleep disorders. Few people recognise their condition and its cause however. Signs of it are chronic tiredness needing constant stimulants to keep going during the day; constant falling asleep during work, talks, driving, inability to wake easily in the morning. As sleep plays an equally important part in healthy long life as nutrition and exercise, it is important to assure its quality. If our pattern and quality of sleep is disturbed, we may fail to notice the influence of such drinks as coffee, chocolate and alcohol, all of which disturb sleep.

One of the major sleep disorders is called sleep apnea. This condition causes the sufferer to stop breathing for periods of ten seconds to a minute or more. The person is therefore aroused to waking state, or near it, over and over during the night. This may underlie the recurrent nightmare some people have of feeling suffocated. This condition, if suspected, needs a doctor’s help.

About 60% of all cases of chronic insomnia stem from mental or physical ailments.  These include depression, sleep apnea (a disorder in which breathing stops dozens — even hundreds — of times a night) and periodic limb movements (which usually involve leg jerks, repeated every few seconds for hours on end).  Sleepers may awaken numerous times, but so briefly, awakenings go unremembered in the morning.

The benefits of considering 24-hour sleep patterns in patients who complain of excessive daytime sleepiness become apparent in workups for sleep apnea, a sleep-induced respiratory impairment.  Many patients who complain of nighttime snoring-snorting episodes and daytime sleepiness do not connect the two.  A focus primarily on a patient’s daytime sleep problems may delay the diagnosis of sleep apnea for months or years, and the possible serious effects of the condition call for prompt diagnosis.

The most likely candidates for sleep apnea are middle-aged overweight men, but apnea can occur in either sex and at any age.  Sleep apnea is strongly linked to cardiovascular disorders such as stroke, hypertension, and coronary artery disease.  In addition to the snorting, gasping, and bouts of hypoxia during the night, the total sleep profile of a patient with sleep apnea includes
excessive daytime sleepiness, sleep attacks, marked movement during nighttime sleep, diaphoresis, enuresis, morning headaches, decreased sex drive, and occasional cognitive changes if the condition persists untreated.  Apneic patients usually have little trouble falling asleep–and thus seldom complain of insomnia–but their sleep may be interrupted upwards of 100 times a night by the episodes.

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