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What The Top Sleep Disorders Do To You

Sleep. We’ve talked about it before, but we absolutely cannot overstate its importance. Without a proper night sleep, you cannot expect to perform your best—whether it’s at school, work or play.

A study by RAND Europe found that the United States suffers up to $411 billion in economic losses due to poor sleep. Plus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say the proper amount of sleep is not a luxury. It’s something we need for good health.

But, what happens if you can’t sleep? What if your body’s internal clock isn’t working like it should or you don’t feel rested after a night’s sleep? You may be surprised to learn that sleep disorders, which affect personal performance and have an economic impact, are a real issue.

David Kukafka, MD, specializes in sleep medicine in Northern Colorado. He described the five most common sleep disorders, their symptoms and potential treatments.

Sleep Apnea

While all sleep disorders should be taken seriously, sleep apnea may have some of the scariest individual consequences. If left untreated, sleep apnea can increase your risk of atrial fibrillation, heart failure, stroke, diabetes and several other conditions.

Experts estimate sleep apnea affects 10-12% of American adults, but they also estimate 80% of people have yet to be diagnosed.

Sleep apnea is usually caused by a crowded airway where normal airflow is restricted. Additionally, excess weight and a thick neck can also lead to a person developing sleep apnea.

Symptoms typically include snoring, periods where you stop breathing at night and feeling tired during the day. If you experience any of these symptoms, a sleep specialist will order a sleep study—either at home or in a sleep lab—to see if you have sleep apnea.

To treat sleep apnea, a sleep specialist has three primary options. The first is a CPAP machine, which is a mask you wear to pump a constant flow of air into your airway. Another option is a dental appliance that opens the airway for better breathing. Finally, you may have to do positional therapy, which uses a device that forces you to sleep on your side.

To help evaluate your risk for sleep apnea, fill out our Sleep Apnea Profiler


Chances are high you have had a bout of insomnia. Perhaps you’ve crawled into bed, expecting to fall asleep quickly. Then, your brain betrays you and starts going over all kinds of things that happened throughout the day. Before you know it, you’ve been lying in bed for a couple of hours.

Dr. Kukafka describes insomnia as a perception of poor sleep, not being able to fall asleep, more than ordinary awakenings during sleep and not feeling rested. In the United States, 50% of people have likely battled insomnia. Roughly 10% have chronic insomnia.

If left untreated, insomnia can lead to an increase in anxiety and stress. Plus, there is the added risk of driving while drowsy, poor performance at work and a whole host of other problems.

In the past, doctors often used medication to help treat insomnia. However, today, doctors are more likely to order cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT first. CBT retrains a person to fall asleep and stay asleep more easily.

Circadian Dysfunction

Your body has an internal “clock” that tells you when you should go to bed and when you should wake up. This timer, according to Dr. Kukafka, runs on a 24.1-hour cycle. This timer tends to shift when someone reaches adolescence, which is why teens love to sleep in late, but it usually shifts back by age 25.

Circadian dysfunction is when that internal clock isn’t keeping time the way it should, leading to poor sleep and not feeling rested when you are awake. Typically, external factors cause circadian dysfunction. Shift workers, for example, very commonly have this disorder, according to Dr. Kukafka. 

Some ways to help with circadian dysfunction include using timed melatonin, light therapy and keeping to a good schedule. 

Restless Leg Syndrome

Imagine lying in bed, trying to fall asleep. Then, you notice a strange, unstable feeling in your legs. They feel itchy or crawling, and the only way to get it to stop is to move your legs. That’s what it feels like to have restless leg syndrome, or RLS.

According to Dr. Kukafka, the disorder is typically worse in women, during pregnancy and for caffeine drinkers. It may affect up to 10% of the population. Researchers believe a chemical imbalance may be the cause of it, but as of right now, no one really knows why people have RLS. 

Dr. Kukafka says treatments for RLS include cutting back how much caffeine you have during the day, decreasing your stress levels, and taking some medications or melatonin supplements.


Also called excessive uncontrollable daytime sleepiness, narcolepsy is an autoimmune or genetic disorder that causes people to feel an inappropriate tiredness. It affects 1 in 200,000 people in the United States, according to Dr. Kukafka.

Symptoms include an almost uncontrollable need to sleep when you shouldn’t—such as in the middle of the day. You may also experience cataplexy, which is muscle weakness, with strong emotions. Other symptoms include sleep paralysis and disrupted sleep. 

Dr. Kukafka says treatment is generally a combination of medications and allowing the patient to sleep more.

Insufficient sleep

Dr. Kukafka adds a major sleep disorder to consider is insufficient sleep. While society is moving in the right direction, there is a history of rewarding people for burning the midnight oil, and society has long considered sleeping wasting time. That simply isn’t true.

Remember, the average adult needs 7 to 8 hours of sleep. Short sleepers, as Dr. Kukafka notes, tend to have more accidents at work and have a higher risk of cancer. 

“Accept that sleep is important,” Dr. Kukafka said. “You’re not wasting time when you’re sleeping.”

And, while naps are OK, they aren’t necessarily going to be as effective as a solid night’s sleep. If you’re having difficulty getting good sleep, talk to your doctor about your concerns.

Want to talk to a sleep specialist? Find one near you.


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