March 30, 2016 10:42 am
Updated: April 1, 2016 7:03 pm

What are the common sleep disorders keeping Canadians awake?

WATCH: Medical research is showing that lack of sleep doesn't just make us feel weary, it's linked to a long list of serious medical problems — from brain disorders to diabetes. Jennifer Tryon reports.

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You toss and turn, unable to fall asleep, you wake up in the middle of the night, or you’re wide awake before your alarm goes off in the morning. Sleep disorders can leave you feeling exhausted despite trying to get a good night’s rest.

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“There’s an increase in recognition of sleep disorders over the past 20 to 30 years. Having a good sleep is fundamental in terms of good health. If you have poor sleep, it equals poor health, an impaired quality of life and decreased life expectancy,” said Dr. John Fleetham, a University of British Columbia professor and vice president of the Canadian Sleep Society.

READ MORE: Sleep-deprived Canadians risking serious long-term health problems: scientists

“Sleep disorders are important to treat – we talk about healthy eating and exercise affect health and sleep is no different. It’s important to our state of being, how our brain works, how our mood alters. It can make people depressed and inattentive,” Dr. Brian Murray, a Sunnybrook Hospital neurologist and University of Toronto professor, told Global News.

Fleetham and Murray explain common sleep disorders and their prevalence in Canada.

Sleep apnea is a disorder in which breathing stops and starts repeatedly, even for minutes at a time as your airway becomes obstructed.

Sleep apnea is thought to affect about four per cent of the population.  But Murray says these estimates are modest and it probably affects closer to 10 per cent of people, while Fleetham says it affects about eight per cent of men and four per cent of women.

In obstructed sleep apnea, your throat muscles relax, or your tongue falls back, cutting off breathing for as long as two minutes, Fleetham explained.

“Some people go through this 500 times a night,” he said.

READ MORE: Booze before bedtime disrupts restful sleep, scientists suggest

In other cases, your brain isn’t sending proper signals to muscles that control breathing.

If you have sleep apnea, you may snore loudly or wake up feeling exhausted even after a full night’s sleep because your sleep was constantly interrupted. It’s been tied to increased risk of high blood pressure, diabetes and heart attacks.

Restless legs syndrome is a movement disorder marked by overwhelming urges to move your legs while you’re resting. It’s most severe in the evening and during the nighttime hours, according to the Sleep Foundation.

“During the day, you constantly want to move your legs but in the night, your legs or arms will move or twitch every 20 seconds. If it twitches and the brain wakes up, you’ve disrupted your sleep,” Fleetham explained.

It affects about three to six per cent of the population, Murray said. It’s often triggered by iron deficiency which is why it’s most common during pregnancy but other factors that increase your risk include vitamin B12 deficiencies, back aches, kidney problems and problems with peripheral nerves.

READ MORE: Here’s what you should be eating for a good night’s sleep, according to scientists

“It’s this uncontrollable sensation when you need to shake, kick or move [your legs] to relieve discomfort in your sleep,” Murray said.

Narcolepsy is a “profound sleepiness,” according to Murray. Narcoleptics battle a strong daytime drowsiness and sudden attacks of sleep. They even find it difficult to stay awake for long stretches of time, which can create serious issues in their daily lives.

The cause of narcolepsy isn’t fully understood but Murray suggests it may be an autoimmune attack on the brain cells that are caretakers of maintaining alertness.

“The thought is people have an autoimmune response to a viral infection and they lose the cells that keep them awake in the day. Sleepiness is a consequence and it can impair school and work performance and socialization – that’s pretty significant,” Murray said.

READ MORE: Canadian doctor shares her tips for falling asleep and staying asleep

In some cases, narcolepsy is tied to a sudden loss of muscle tone and loss of muscle control.

Insomnia is when you have difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep and waking up at the right time, and not earlier. It could be triggered by many different things that Fleetham calls “poor sleep hygiene” – watching television in bed or playing on your smartphone, caffeine before bedtime, or an inability to keep a regular sleep schedule.

This sleep disorder could also be brought on by depression, anxiety or other mental health concerns.

But in most instances, another sleep disorder, such as a mild apnea, could be the cause, Murray said.

“Helping people identify the root cause can help manage the insomnia,” he suggested.

Sleepwalking typically sets in during childhood with most people growing out of it with age. Parasomnias –  sleep disorders that could trigger walking, eating, and other activities  while you sleep – could lead to dangerous occurrences.

About 15 per cent of kids deal with parasomnia. They usually outgrow it in their preteens.

Another three to five per cent of adults experience walking, talking, driving, eating, even have sex, in their sleep.

There are two main kinds of sleepwalking: one happens during slow-wave sleep, which could be a sign of sleep apnea, periodic limb movements or even seizures. The other occurs during rapid eye movement or REM sleep, which people are more likely to recall.

Typically, doctors hand patients behavioural and pharmacological therapy. They’re taught to lock doors so they don’t wander outside and to stick to a sleep schedule. They may have prescription medication to help them sleep soundly through the evening, too.

carmen.chai@globalnews.ca

© 2016 Shaw Media

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