The combined excesses of irregular working hours, lack of exercise and a proper diet coupled with ultra high stress levels have begun taking a toll on people in the form of sleep disorders. Recent surveys peg the number of people suffering from chronic long-term sleep disorders each year at about 40 million and from occasional sleep problems at 20 million, in the United States alone.
Sleep is very essential for the normal and healthy functioning of the human body. Insufficient sleep can have severe damaging effects on health. Sleep is required for the normal immune system to function and to be able to fight disease. It also plays a vital role in the normal functioning of the nervous system. It is essential for learning and for normal, healthy cell growth.
More than 70 different sleep disorders are recognized and they fall under the three broad categories of lack of sleep (insomnia), disturbed sleep (obstructive sleep apnea), and excessive sleep (narcolepsy). Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder. It occurs more often in women and in the elderly. The amount of sleep that a person requires normally depends on several factors, such as age and physical activity.
Various chemical changes in the brain and blood control our falling asleep and waking up. Intake of food and medicines alter the balance of these chemicals also affect how well we sleep. Substances present in beverages such as Caffeine can cause insomnia. Similarly, antidepressants can cause a loss of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Nicotine and alcohol can result in a loss of deep sleep. Both REM and deep sleep are essential parts of the normal sleep cycle.
Concerted efforts by the practitioners of psychology and psychiatry reveal that sleep is a dynamic process. Five different stages of sleep, each characterized by a different type of brain wave activity, have been discovered. The five stages repeat over and over again in a single night’s rest. Stages 1 through 4 are known as non-rapid eye movement sleep (NREM). The fifth is called REM sleep because of the vigorous eye ball movement that occurs. Dreaming occurs during this phase of the sleep cycle. A complete sleep cycle, from the beginning of stage 1 to the end of REM, usually takes about an hour and a half.
A proper diagnosis is essential for the treatment and management of sleep disorders. Treatments for sleep disorders can be grouped into three categories: Behavioral/ psychotherapeutic treatments, medication, other somatic treatments. However, there is no general approach that is applicable to all patients with sleep disorders.