Frequent fatigue could be a sign of a sleep disorder

Eric Sklar, MD, is a board-certified neurologist with more than 17 years of experience in treating patients. He also holds board certifications in sleep medicine, clinical neurophysiology and vascular neurology.

March 8 – 14, 2020, is Sleep Awareness Week, and The National Sleep Foundation encourages the public to prioritize sleep to improve their overall health and well-being and to celebrate healthy sleep.

With busy schedules and the demands of work and family life, it can be easy to feel sapped of energy sometimes. Everyone has days when they are especially tired. But when patients come into my office and talk about how they feel sleepy all day, every day, and even a nap or sleeping in doesn’t help — and can even make it worse — that is when we begin to work together on finding out if a sleep disorder is a culprit.

RELATED: Sleep Better: A Whole Body Approach to Superior Slumber

Daytime sleepiness is a common reason for many people to see a physician or other sleep expert, and it is characterized by persistent drowsiness and a general lack of energy, even after adequate sleep.

In other words, if you have gotten your seven to nine hours of sleep for the night and still feel like you could take a nap soon after getting up — and that feeling continues throughout the day — you could be struggling with a disorder such as:

  • Sleep apnea: This potentially serious sleep disorder occurs when breathing stops and starts throughout the night, often causing snoring and considerable daytime fatigue.

  • Insomnia: When you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep throughout the night, you may have insomnia, one of the most common sleep disorders in the world. This can happen with changes in your life circumstances – for example, if you’re nervous the night before a big job interview or excited for your wedding the next day – but insomnia can also be chronic for many people.

  • Restless leg syndrome: This condition involves the urge to move the legs, usually at night when trying to get to sleep. A similar condition called Periodic Limb Movements of Sleep can end up waking you up throughout sleep.

  • Medical condition-related problem: There are some chronic illnesses that can contribute to sleep problems. These include cardiovascular disease, neurological disorders, respiratory issues, thyroid disease, diabetes, gastrointestinal problems, obesity and others.

  • Medication-related issue: Whether you are taking medication for one of the conditions listed above or for a different illness, it is possible that your prescription could be interfering with your sleep.

  • Narcolepsy: Not all daytime sleepiness is a result of nighttime sleep issues. Narcolepsy is a rare disorder that causes overwhelming daytime sleepiness, which can sometimes come on very suddenly.

  • Hypersomnia: This is another condition that can occur even if you have had plenty of sleep at night. Also known as excessive daytime sleepiness, hypersomnia is sometimes linked to medical conditions, but other times might be a condition on its own. Symptoms can include low energy, loss of appetite, anxiety and irritability.

The longer daytime sleepiness continues, the more it may impact your life. In my patients, I have seen many notable changes in habits and behavior that are related directly to their sleep issues. This often includes cognition effects like difficulty paying attention, struggles with decision making and problems with short-term memory.

Effects like these can have a range of negative outcomes, making patients nervous about driving, more anxious in general and less productive at work. Their health can suffer in other ways as well, such as making them more susceptible to catching colds or flu, or causing digestive problems that had not been present before. The longer their sleep problems continue, the more their quality of life is negatively impacted.

Sleep Solutions

Some sleep disorders like narcolepsy and chronic insomnia can run in families, but even if you have a family connection, that does not mean you have to suffer with daytime sleepiness. There are many treatments that can help, from antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications to pain relievers that can ease underlying issues affecting the quality of sleep.

The first step in understanding why you are experiencing daytime sleepiness is to see a sleep specialist who can pinpoint potential causes of a disorder; the specialist may order blood work and daytime or nighttime sleep testing. Often, excessive daytime sleepiness does not improve on its own, and as people attempt to “fix” the issue with excessive caffeine intake, more naps and longer sleep times, it can actually get worse.

If you feel like you are too sleepy during the day, and it is impacting your quality of life, consider making an appointment and discussing your options for better sleep.

Learn more about Inova’s Sleep Disorders Program.

Take the Sleep Apnea Risk Assessment.

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