5 Common Sleep Conditions

Written by Joshua Roland, M.D., FAASM

Sleep disorders are medical conditions that prevent people from sleeping well, and can actually be harmful to your health. They can develop at any age, but the preteen and teen years are a time when many symptoms of sleep disorders may first begin.

#1 – Insomnia

Insomnia is when you have trouble falling or staying asleep or waking up too early, creating a negative impact on how you feel during the day. Often it is caused by stress/anxiety or other sleep disorders initially, but over time, worry and stress about sleep itself, or picking up habits in response to the sleep disruption that further worsens sleep (such as long naps in the day or drinking caffeine) can occur, perpetuating the cycle. Most people have occasional nights of insomnia at some point in their life, but if symptoms are going on for an extended period of time, seeking help is likely warranted.  

It is important to make sure that if you are stressed or having trouble sleeping to find medical or psychological care to address any underlying issues. Trying to be mindful of good sleep habits but not overly stressing out about sleep itself can also be helpful in avoiding the risk of insomnia. The primary treatment for insomnia is something called cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, or CBT-i, which works at addressing the behavioral and mental factors causing insomnia.

#2 – Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is a common condition in many age groups, and involves the muscles of the airway relaxing too much during sleep, preventing proper breathing and causing sleep to be disrupted. Snoring and mouth breathing during sleep are commonly associated with sleep apnea. If you are snoring loudly, waking up at night gasping for air, or are feeling tired during the day despite enough rest, it is a good idea to see a sleep medicine specialist to have an evaluation for obstructive sleep apnea.

#3 – Restless Leg Syndrome

Restless leg syndrome is a condition where the limbs, typically (but not always) the legs, feel the urge to move at night making it hard to fall or stay asleep. Things such as caffeine, alcohol, and certain medications can cause symptoms of restless leg syndrome, as can low iron levels. There is also a genetic component often seen with restless leg syndrome. Cutting out caffeine or alcohol and having your iron levels checked (particularly a form of iron storage called the ferritin) is a good start to addressing restless legs. There are also medicines available which may help if needed. 

#4 – Circadian Rhythm Disorders

Circadian rhythm disorders are conditions where our internal clocks are shifted in a way that is different from the external world. A certain kind of circadian rhythm disorder called delayed sleep/wake phase disorder is very common in teens. Simply put, this is the tendency to be more of a “night owl.”  Teens have the tendency for their internal clocks to shift later, causing them to want to stay up later and sleep in later in the morning. At times this can be confused with insomnia, because the body is not ready to fall asleep. This can also cause teens to be viewed as sleepy or lazy when they aren’t ready to wake up early in the morning. While this shift can be normal in teens, keeping a set sleep and wake time on the weekends, getting morning sunlight, and avoiding too much light in the evening can help align the internal clock to make it easier to go to bed and wake up in time for school or work. 

#5 – Narcolepsy

Narcolepsy is the dysregulation between wake and a specific stage of sleep known as REM sleep. It can develop during teenage years, with symptoms of falling asleep very easily throughout the day and waking up at night. There is also a condition called idiopathic hypersomnia which can begin as a teenager, where there is excessive sleepiness despite getting many hours of sleep. Both of these conditions should be evaluated by a sleep specialist if there is a concern for these disorders.