‘No rest for the wicked’? We beg to differ.

Looking at sleep disorders through an evolutionary lens has no doubt been illuminating. The high prevalence of sleep disorders we see around us today – or maybe experience ourselves – begs the question: what is causing so many sleep issues across the world?

What are some possible causes of common sleep disorders?

More often than not, sleep disorders have their roots in an underlying health problem. Some of these might include:

  • Allergies and Respiratory Problems

Being unable to breathe properly through your nose can cause sleep disturbances and can give rise to sleep-related breathing disorders like sleep apnea. Upper respiratory infections, colds and allergies also cause problems breathing easily at night while asleep.

  • Chronic Pain

Unrelenting pain can make it difficult for you to fall asleep, and – to make it worse – cause sleep disturbances once you do manage to fall asleep. Some common causes of chronic pain include arthritis, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease and continuous lower back pain. In some cases, such as fibromyalgia, chronic pain may be aggravated by sleeping problems or sleep disorders.

  • Stress and Anxiety

Stress and anxiety often have a negative impact on quality and quantity of sleep. If you’ve been facing a lot of stress at work recently and have been struggling to get enough shut-eye, you might have to deal with trouble concentrating, low energy, a negative mood and an overall inability to function as you normally do.

  • Nocturia

Nocturia, or frequent urination, may cause frequent sleep disruptions and sleep fragmentation.

Health problems cause sleep disorders, and these – in turn – affect other systems in the body negatively and might escalate the risk of certain diseases. Quite a vicious cycle, isn’t it?

We discussed circadian rhythms and the natural light-dark cycles in a previous article. So what about the impact of artificial light – the light emanated from electronics? They’ve certainly infiltrated our lives over the last three decades – how does this influence sleep?   

How does exposure to electronics affect one’s sleep cycle? 

Our society today, in general – and the younger generations in particular – are fairly “dark-deprived” due to the high usage of electronics such as phones, tablets and television. We need darkness to release a hormone known as melatonin(1), that induces sleepiness at night. The damage of being “dark-deprived” is twofold: on a biological level, and a mental one.

This study(2) investigating the effect of ‘light-emitting e-readers’ found that evening use negatively affected sleep, circadian rhythms and next-morning alertness. It showed that there was a whopping 50% drop in melatonin, which means you lose 50% of the signal of sleep timing. It also reduces the time spent in REM sleep, the importance of which we discuss in this piece. No wonder your favourite read is keeping you up! 

On a mental level – the damage to which may be stronger than the biological one – devices can cause sleep procrastination due to an irresistible to check your social media ‘one last time’, or even sleep interruptions during the night. 
According to Matthew Walker, devices and technologies may also cause ‘anticipatory anxiety’ – the expectation of being flooded with notifications in the morning decreases the amount of deep sleep you get, with the amount of anxiety corresponding to the level of reduction in deep sleep. 

What are the effects of certain substances on sleep?

According to the National Institutes of Health, insomnia is a common sleep problem among adults, with 30% reporting sleep disruption. Many people turn to some sort of sleep aid to help them fall asleep, while others uses substances like caffeine to stay awake. We look at a few of the most common ones: 

  • Alcohol

Is your nightcap working against you getting great sleep? Easily one of the most misunderstood sleep aids, it works as a sedative – so you might end up losing consciousness more quickly, but you’re not actually falling asleep faster. It also causes sleep fragmentation, which causes you to wake up more often in the middle of the night, having an impact on your physiology. It blocks REM sleep, too, which is why you wake up not feeling entirely well-rested.

  • High-carb meals

Does what you eat impact your sleep? We explore more of that in this article. A meal high in carbohydrates, such as a bowl of cereal, can have a detrimental effect on sleep quality quite similar to alcohol, with high-carbohydrate meals linked to less time spent in deep sleep. 

  • Caffeine

The same coffee you use to wake up in the morning, might just be keeping you up at night. Caffeine blocks adenosine receptors in the brain; with adenosine building up the signal to sleep, blocking it amounts to hitting the mute button on sleepiness. Caffeine lasts a long time in your system – it has a half-life of six hours, and a quarter life of 12 hours. Considering you’ve had a full mug of coffee in the morning, a quarter of that caffeine is still in the brain 12 hours later, keeping you up at night.  

Simply put-

Allergies, respiratory problems, chronic pain, stress and anxiety and nocturia can all be possible causes to the high prevalence of sleep disorders today. Constant exposure to light emanated from electronics has also found to be detrimental to one’s sleep cycle, in addition to overconsumption of substances like caffeine and alcohol.

We take a closer look at sleep solutions in other articles this series – from tips on getting a good night’s sleep to whether we can use technology to enhance sleep quality