Defining a Sleep Disorder: What You Need to Know Now

The number of hours you sleep isnt as important as how you feel during the day.(BLOOM IMAGE/CORBIS/HEALTH)

It doesn't take much to spark a few mid-afternoon yawns: An argument with a spouse that kept you up at night, or giving into a tempting after-dinner coffee. These and a thousand things can sap your daytime energy. But you should be able to regain your balance the following night.

If sleep difficulties or fatigue persist, however, you could have a chronic sleep disorder. Here are a few key points to keep in mind.

  • There are more than 80 known sleep disorders, each with a wide range of causes and symptoms.
  • The number of hours you sleep each night isn't as important as how you feel during the day.
  • Trouble sleeping or constant daytime exhaustion is not just a normal part of aging.
  • Not getting enough sleep, either intentionally or because of a sleep disorder, can raise your risk of depression, diabetes, obesity, and other chronic health conditions.
  • Any sleep situation that affects your quality of life—no matter how frequent—is worth mentioning to your doctor.
  • If you have consistent sleep disturbances for more than a month, see a doctor to determine the best treatment.

Most of the estimated 40 million Americans who suffer from a sleep disorder are undiagnosed and untreated, says Carol Ash, DO, medical director of the Sleep for Life center in Hillsborough, N.J. Too often, doctors and patients alike fail to recognize the importance of good sleep.

"We'll all have an occasional bad night, and we're very aware of it the next day," Dr. Ash says. "But for many people it's like being colorblind. They don't realize anymore that the rest of us are not existing the way they are."

Sleep is a basic physiological need, she stresses—as important as air, food, and shelter. "We're still in the infancy of understanding the whole process, but we know that it has restorative value. And when you don't get sleep, it has a significant negative impact on many different organ systems—and on your overall emotional and physical health."

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