How a sleep disorder, left untreated, can damage your heart and more.
If you suffer from a sleep disorder, you probably already know some of the downsides. You’re not getting enough of the right kind of sleep, so you’re tired. And your spouse keeps complaining that you snore or thrash around at night.
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“Many people with sleep disorders just think that that’s how they’re supposed to be,” says sleep medicine expert Dr. Michael Decker.
But sleep is critical to our physical health as well as our ability to function and our overall quality of life, says sleep medicine specialist Dr. John Winkelman, medical director for the Sleep Health Center of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Massachusetts. “If it wasn’t necessary, it wouldn’t take up roughly a third of our life,” he says.
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If you’re not convinced a possible sleep disorder is serious enough to cause you to seek treatment, check out these specific—and often surprising—ways poor sleep can affect your health.
- It could increase your risk of heart disease. Research shows that obstructive sleep apnea—in which you essentially stop breathing—can increase your risk of cardiovascular damage. If you have this particular sleep disorder, you could benefit from adopting a heart-healthy lifestyle. Another sleep disorder, restless leg syndrome, was linked to an elevated risk of heart disease in older women, according to a study in the September 2012 issue of the journal Circulation.
- You could injure yourself. Sleepwalking is a more common sleep disorder than you might realize—and it’s incredibly dangerous, Decker says. “Sleepwalkers are in an in-between state. They’re neither awake nor asleep,” he explains. There are many potentially perilous situations that you could wind up in, such as walking out of your house and into the street.
- You could injure your spouse. People who have a sleep disorder called REM Behavior Disorder, or RBD, act out their dreams at night because the neurological mechanism that usually paralyzes a person during sleep doesn’t work correctly. If you have this sleep disorder, you might accidentally push, kick or punch your spouse—and yet not even realize what you’re doing because you were asleep the entire time.
- It could contribute to weight problems. Being overweight or obese often contributes to the development of obstructive sleep apnea, but as it turns out, a sleep disorder can also make it harder for you to maintain a healthy weight. Poor sleep could impair your metabolism and disrupt your ability to process glucose. The National Sleep Foundation cautions that your levels of leptin, an appetite-inhibiting hormone, tend to drop when you don’t get enough sleep, boosting your appetite. Plus, notes, when you’re sleepy, you tend to crave calorie-rich carbs and don’t want to exercise.
- It can hinder your memory. When you’re tired, it’s hard to concentrate or remember small details. But a sleep disorder’s affect on the brain could be even more serious. In 2008, a team of researchers from UCLA linked the impaired breathing that’s a hallmark of sleep apnea to a brain injury that can lead to memory loss. However, it’s unclear whether the apnea caused brain damage or the other way around.
- Sleep loss may contribute to depression. Insomnia is a common symptom of depression. But if you aren’t getting the restorative benefits of sleep, you may be more likely to develop depression, according to a 2010 study at the University of Sydney.
- Your brain might get into the habit of not sleeping. According to Decker, about one-third of the adult population has problems falling or staying asleep. If you are suffering from insomnia, you may need some type of treatment to get your brain back on track, says Decker. “We have to retrain our brain that it needs to sleep all night,” he says.
- You might fall asleep while driving. Excessive daytime sleepiness, or EDS, is a common result of obstructive sleep apnea, and it can make you much more likely to fall asleep at the wheel. “It only takes two seconds of closing your eyes if you’re driving on a highway to do a great deal of damage,” says Winkelman.
- You become very grumpy. Lack of sleep makes us grouchy and irritable, which can make everyone around us unhappy as a result. For the sake of your friendships and other valuable relationships, it’s worth getting your sleep disorder treated so you can ditch the bad mood.
- It can make you exhausted. It’s a no-brainer, but it’s still important. Getting enough sleep is critical to your quality of life. If you’re having trouble keeping up with all the tasks of living your life or you’re not finding any pleasure in your life because of a sleep disorder, why not seek treatment?