Sleep: A Dynamic Activity (cont.)
In this Article
What are sleep disorders?
For short-term insomnia, doctors may prescribe sleeping pills. Most sleeping pills stop working after several weeks of nightly use, however, and long-term use can actually interfere with good sleep. Mild insomnia often can be prevented or cured by practicing good sleep habits (see "Tips for a Good Night's Sleep" below). For more serious cases of insomnia, researchers are experimenting with light therapy and other ways to alter circadian cycles.
During an episode of obstructive apnea, the person's effort to inhale air creates suction that collapses the windpipe. This blocks the air flow for 10 seconds to a minute while the sleeping person struggles to breathe. When the person's blood oxygen level falls, the brain responds by awakening the person enough to tighten the upper airway muscles and open the windpipe. The person may snort or gasp, then resume snoring. This cycle may be repeated hundreds of times a night. The frequent awakenings that sleep apnea patients experience leave them continually sleepy and may lead to personality changes such as irritability or depression. Sleep apnea also deprives the person of oxygen, which can lead to morning headaches, a loss of interest in sex, or a decline in mental functioning. It also is linked to high blood pressure, irregular heartbeats, and an increased risk of heart attacks and stroke. Patients with severe, untreated sleep apnea are two to three times more likely to have automobile accidents than the general population. In some high-risk individuals, sleep apnea may even lead to sudden death from respiratory arrest during sleep.
An estimated 18 million Americans have sleep apnea. However, few of them have had the problem diagnosed. Patients with the typical features of sleep apnea, such as loud snoring, obesity, and excessive daytime sleepiness, should be referred to a specialized sleep center that can perform a test called polysomnography. This test records the patient's brain waves, heartbeat, and breathing during an entire night. If sleep apnea is diagnosed, several treatments are available. Mild sleep apnea frequently can be overcome through weight loss or by preventing the person from sleeping on his or her back. Other people may need special devices or surgery to correct the obstruction. People with sleep apnea should never take sedatives or sleeping pills, which can prevent them from awakening enough to breathe.
Restless Legs Syndrome
Many RLS patients also have a disorder known as periodic limb movement disorder or PLMD, which causes repetitive jerking movements of the limbs, especially the legs. These movements occur every 20 to 40 seconds and cause repeated awakening and severely fragmented sleep. In one study, RLS and PLMD accounted for a third of the insomnia seen in patients older than age 60.
RLS and PLMD often can be relieved by drugs that affect the neurotransmitter dopamine, suggesting that dopamine abnormalities underlie these disorders' symptoms. Learning how these disorders occur may lead to better therapies in the future.
Once narcolepsy is diagnosed, stimulants, antidepressants, or other drugs can help control the symptoms and prevent the embarrassing and dangerous effects of falling asleep at improper times. Naps at certain times of the day also may reduce the excessive daytime sleepiness.
In 1999, a research team working with canine models identified a gene that causes narcolepsy-a breakthrough that brings a cure for this disabling condition within reach. The gene, hypocretin receptor 2, codes for a protein that allows brain cells to receive instructions from other cells. The defective versions of the gene encode proteins that cannot recognize these messages, perhaps cutting the cells off from messages that promote wakefulness. The researchers know that the same gene exists in humans, and they are currently searching for defective versions in people with narcolepsy. For more in-depth information, please read our Narcolepsy article.