Be it poor sleep habits or serious insomnia, it’s time to meet a sleep-medicine specialist, we suggest on the eve of World Sleep Day

We’ve all been caught napping. Kids nod off in classrooms, youngsters in colleges, adults at work, in assemblies, conferences and meetings, elders at concerts and movies. Falling asleep at ‘wrong’ times is not always a harmless, amusing episode. Accidents have been caused by drivers dropping off on the wheel, workers slumping at the machine. Companies complain of production losses when workers get sleepy after lunch. Doctors say sleep disorders — whether poor sleep habits (sleep hygiene) or serious insomnia — are among the top non-communicable diseases after diabetes, hypertension and heart disease. When you hear of sleep clinics and physicians specialising in sleep disorders, you know it’s serious.

An epidemic really, and WHO will recognise this soon, says N. Ramakrishnan, president, Indian Sleep Disorders Association (ISDA), and senior consultant and director, Nithra Institute of Sleep Sciences.

World Association for Sleep Medicine, recognising the need for proper sleep, earmarks a week for awareness about sleep disorders and promotes March 15 as World Sleep Day. Before you resolve to get your eight hours today, ask yourself: ‘Do I avoid sleep? Or is it that I can’t sleep? Do I have narcolepsy (excessive daytime sleepiness), restless legs syndrome (itchy, ‘creepy-crawly’ sensation) or sleepwalking?

Look for the symptoms

If you wake up feeling unrested and with a headache, feel fatigued, irritable all day, have trouble concentrating and / or sleep off at odd times, you could be having dyssomnia or parasomnia, says S. Jayaraman, sleep and chest physician. He conducts screening camps for awareness / detection of sleep apnea (SA), a disorder that affects breathing.

“When you sleep, the upper airway gets narrowed or completely blocked due to loss of tone of muscles,” he says. In children, it’s due to enlargement of tonsils and adenoids, and in adults, it’s because of anatomical abnormality, neural problems or hormonal imbalance. Sleep apnea is characterised by loud snoring, arrested breathing, gurgling, and dry throat. The disturbances cut off oxygen supply to the brain and wake you up often. In extreme cases the results are devastating.

“SA makes control of diabetes / hypertension difficult,” says Dr. Jayaraman. Partners have applied for divorce citing unbearable snoring.

For most of us, lack of sleep is a lifestyle jinx. Allergic rhinitis due to dust and virus can cause temporary sleep disorders, says Dr. Jayaraman. Diabetes, high BP, anaemia, restless legs syndrome, joint pain or some other medical problem may stand in the way of a restful night’s sleep, says Dr. Ramakrishnan. Worry takes away sleep, as do factors such as temperature, noise, work shifts, jet-lag, long work-hours, erratic food habits, drinking. Long commute forces you to doze off in the vehicle. Video games and browsing the Internet prevent the brain from unwinding because of the light. You need darkness to stimulate secretion of melatonin, which induces sleep.

Type-A personalities — perfectionists and those who won’t rest till the work is finished — are foremost candidates for sleep disorders. Obviously, many of these are temporary, and have common-sense solutions. If sleeplessness (insomnia) lasts more than two weeks without obvious triggers, visit a doctor. Counselling will help pinpoint the reason.

Do you pop pills? Medication must be supervised and temporary, says Dr. Ramakrishnan. Sleeping pills are not the answer for all. They may not help a patient with depression till the cause of depression is treated.

Unwind!

You need to sleep, and sleep well for six to eight hours, say doctors. Restore the sleep routines of infancy, and do at least an hour’s unwinding for a good night’s sleep. Have dinner early. Don’t nap after 3 p.m. Associate your bed with sleep. Use a chair for reading / computer work / TV watching. Switch off the cellphone. Breathing exercises and meditation help one relax. Sleeping pattern changes in old age. Counter inactivity with walking, meeting friends, gardening, volunteering, spending time with children, and pursuing a hobby.

Over 90 per cent of sleep problems remain untreated, says Dr. Ramakrishnan. Check with qualified sleep-medicine specialists to address the issue.