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About Sleep & Sleep Disorders

Sleep Disorders

Sleep disorders affect a substantial number of people worldwide and may be increasing in prevalence. It is estimated that more than 25% of the U.S. population has insufficient sleep. Sleep disturbances can be due to many causes, one of the most common causes is obstructive sleep apnea (OSA).

About obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a common problem that affects breathing during sleep. "Apnea" means not breathing. A person with OSA has times during sleep in which air cannot flow normally into the lungs. The blockage of airflow is usually caused by the collapse of the soft tissues in the back of the throat. These pauses in breathing occur off and on during the night, causing frequent awakenings which prevent a person from getting continuous good-quality sleep. OSA has been associated with a variety of other medical issues that may be caused or worsened by the obstructive apneas, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke.

Symptoms of sleep apnea can include loud snoring that may have gasps and choking sounds, pauses in breathing observed by another person, and restless sleep with frequent awakening. There are a number of different treatments for OSA. Treatments that can be tried at home include weight loss, avoiding alcohol before bed, and sewing a tennis ball into the back of pajamas to avoid sleeping on the back. Other treatments may be recommended by a doctor after a sleep evaluation. Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) is a device used with a nose or face mask which delivers airflow/pressure into the airway, holding the airway open and keeping it from collapsing. Oral devices worn during sleep may help to reposition the jaw in order to keep the airway open. Surgery such as tonsillectomy, jaw surgery, and upper airway surgery may be recommended in some cases and should only be used after trying non-surgical treatments.

Content adapted from: American Thoracic Society: Patient Resources. "Healthy Sleep in Adults," "Obstructive Sleep Apnea in Adults."

Sleep Research Videos

Shaq Attacks Sleep Apnea: Shaquille O'Neal and his wife suspect that he has sleep apnea. They come to Atul Malhotra, M.D. and Pam De Young for an overnight sleep study in which Shaq's moderate obstructive sleep apnea is diagnosed, and treatment discussed.

Sleep Apnea (UCSD TV): Sleep Research Lab faculty member Robert Owens, M.D. discusses sleep and sleep apnea with host David Granet, MD.

woman sleeping in white sheets amidst vibrant green palms

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The Basics: Healthy Sleep

Getting enough sleep is vital for your mental and physical health, safety, and quality of life. Adequate sleep duration and quality help us concentrate, learn, react, make decisions, create memories, and function optimally. Reducing your sleep time by even just 1 hour can negatively affect your thought process and reaction time the following day. Insufficient sleep can be associated with several medical conditions, including depression, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, and kidney disease. Not getting enough sleep can also make it harder to fight off infections. People who do not get enough sleep are more likely to feel hungry and eat more fatty and sugary foods and fewer vegetables. Sleep deficiency is also associated with an increased risk of injury and accidents, including motor vehicle accidents.

Most adults need about 7–9 hours of sleep each day while teenagers need 8–10 hours. When you wake up spontaneously feeling refreshed and able to function well, you likely have had enough sleep. You may be sleep deficient if you have a high likelihood of falling asleep during the day, such as while sitting and reading in the afternoon, or while watching TV.

Here are a few tips that can help improve your sleep:

  • Go to bed and wake up the same time every day (regardless if it is the weekend or a weekday).
  • Exercise at least 30 minutes during the day most days of the week, but avoid vigorous exercise 2-3 hours before going to bed.
  • Avoid electronics (TV, computers, smartphones, video games) and bright light at least 60 minutes before bedtime.
  • Avoid caffeine (coffee, soft drinks, tea, chocolate, energy drinks) in the afternoon and evening as the effects of caffeine can last for up to 8 hours or more.
  • Avoid large meals and foods that may upset your stomach close to bedtime, such as fatty, spicy, or fried foods.
  • Avoid alcohol in the evening. It may make you feel drowsy, but it can disrupt your sleep, cause nightmares, and cause you to sleep less deeply and less continuously throughout the night.
  • If you do not fall asleep within 20–30 minutes, get up and do something relaxing outside of the bedroom and return to bed when you feel tired.
Content adapted from: American Thoracic Society: Patient Resources. "Healthy Sleep in Adults," "Obstructive Sleep Apnea in Adults," "Insomnia."