Research shows that healthy sleep is in part dependent on the body's internal "clock," which is influenced by what are known as circadian rhythms. The term circadian is Latin and means "around a day." Circadian rhythms tend to follow the same cycles and patterns of the sun during a 24-hour period and influence the times of day when a person feels most awake and alert, as well as those times when he or she feels tired or sleepy. People with healthy circadian rhythms have little trouble rising early in the day with lots of energy, and also tend to easily fall and remain asleep at night, usually retiring well before midnight. This was the normal waking and sleeping pattern of our ancestors. However, due to many factors of the modern world, especially artificial light, it is much easier to disrupt the body's natural circadian rhythms. When this happens, restless sleep, as well as various other physical and psychological health disturbances, are apt to occur.
All told, poor sleep is such a significant problem in the U.S. that Americans spend nearly 20 billion dollars each year on sleep-related medical care, especially sleeping pills, and over 13 million people a year use prescription medications in order to try and get a good night's sleep. Not only do such medications fail to address the underlying causes of sleep disorders, they can also cause serious side effects, including abnormal brain wave patterns, imbalanced brain chemistry, diminished deep and REM (rapid eye movement or dream) sleep, addiction and withdrawal symptoms, and impaired physical and cognitive ability during the day. Moreover, sleep patterns and the quality of one's sleep often become even worse following discontinuation of sleeping pills, compared to how they were before the medications were used.
There are many types of sleep disorders. What follows is an overview of those that are most common.
Advanced Sleep Phase Syndrome: People who are affected by advanced sleep phase syndrome typically find themselves falling asleep in the early evening (6 to 9 p.m.), only to wake up again around midnight to 2 a.m., after which time they are unable to fall back asleep. As a result, they are often tired throughout the day, and prone to anxiety and depression, mood swings, and stress.
Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome: People affected by this condition typically find themselves chronically staying up to 3 or 4 in the morning, and are usually unable to get up any earlier than 10 to 11 a.m. without experiencing daytime fatigue, memory and cognition problems, and impaired physical functioning. Despite being tired during the day, they are also unable to sleep again until well past midnight.
Insomnia: Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder. 58 percent of all American adults suffer from insomnia at least one night per week. In people who work nontraditional "9-5" shifts the percentage rises to 66 percent. Insomnia is characterized by difficulties falling or remaining asleep at night. The end result is being tired and more prone to stress during the day.
There are three types of insomnia. Sleep-onset insomnia refers to insomnia that is characterized by difficulty falling asleep once a person has gone to bed. Once sleep does occur (often hours later), such people tend to sleep well for the rest of the night. Sleep-maintenance insomnia refers to problems sleeping throughout the night. It is characterized by waking up several times during the night, followed by difficulties falling back to sleep each time. The last category of insomnia is known as early-awakening insomnia. People who suffer from this condition routinely find themselves waking up much earlier in the morning than they would like so that they fail to get enough sleep.
Narcolepsy: This chronic sleep disorder affects people by causing them to fall asleep during the day due to what can be characterized as "sleep attacks." When a sleep attack strikes, the person will fall asleep, sometimes for only a few seconds, but other times for half an hour or more. In addition, the sleep attacks can occur more than once throughout the day, even while a person is talking, eating, walking, and working, and despite the person having had a good night's sleep.
Additional symptoms of narcolepsy include cataplexy, a condition characterized by an abrupt, temporary loss of muscle function; disorienting hallucinations; and sleep paralysis, which can cause narcoleptic patients temporarily become unable to move or talk. Between 20 to 25 percent of all people with narcolepsy suffer from all four of the above symptoms, while the majority of sufferers primarily only experience sleep attacks.
Night Terrors: Also known as sleep terrors, this condition causes people affected to suffer from intense, nightmare-like experiences that can result in loud cries and screams, agitated leaps out of bed, and running out of the bedroom. Night terrors are not nightmares, however, and typically occur during non-dream stages of sleep. Moreover, the people who suffer from them usually appear awake during the experiences, though they are in fact still asleep.
Symptoms of night terrors include dilated pupils, heart palpitations, and intense sweating. The majority of cases occur among young children, yet an estimated one percent of all adults are also affected by this condition.
Periodic Limb Movements in Sleep (PLMS): PLMS is a sleep disorder that is characterized by abrupt, involuntary, repetitive movements of the limbs, especially the legs during sleep. It can occur at the beginning of the sleep cycle or later. During episodes of PLMS, the limbs can jerk about every ten to 60 seconds and be repeated for up to hundreds of times, leaving sufferers feeling tired during the day.
REM Behavior Disorder (RBD): RBD is a sleep disorder that occurs during the dream, or REM, sleep stage. People who suffer from RBD physically act out their dreams while they are occurring without being aware that they are doing so. As they dream, their bodies will often exhibit rhythmic movements, as well as jerking, repetitive movements of the head and neck, and rocking motions in their torso and limbs. Because people who suffer from RBD are unaware that their bodies are physically engaged during their dreams, they fail to realize when their movements can prove dangerous, such as head banging. In addition, because of their physical exertions, they are usually tired during the day and may find parts of their bodies bruised or cut as a result of RBD activity.
Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS): Restless legs syndrome is characterized by sensations of burning, itching, prickling, or tugging in the legs that occur while a person is asleep or resting. In some cases, these sensations can also occur in the arms. The end result is a feeling of discomfort that makes falling and remaining asleep difficult because the sensations can often continue for extended periods throughout the night.
Sleep Apnea: Sleep apnea is a potentially serious health condition that is characterized by periodic interruptions in the breathing process, forcing the sleeper to awaken to gasp for air, often throughout the night. Each episode of interrupted breathing can last for up to a minute, depleting the blood of oxygen and increasing the supply of harmful carbon dioxide. This eventually causes the brain to signal a need to wake up, resulting in the sleeper doing so briefly before falling back to asleep again—usually with a loud gasp—until the episode repeats itself. As many as thirty such awakening episodes can occur each hour although they usually go unnoticed by the sleeper because of how brief they are.
Because of the ongoing interrupted sleep, people with this condition are often very tired or sleepy during the day, and can also suffer from anxiety, depression, headaches (especially in the morning), high blood pressure, heart attack, memory and cognition problems, and stroke. Caution: Children who suffer from sleep apnea are also more susceptible to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). If your child has sleep apnea, seek prompt medical care.
All sleep disorders are caused, or negatively influenced, by one or more of the following factors, most of which are typically ignored by conventional physicians.
Diet: Poor diet and/or poor eating habits, such as eating late in the evening, only a few hours before retiring, can often cause or exacerbate sleeping problems. This is especially true of the standard American diet, which lacks organic fresh fruits and vegetables while being high in salt, sugars, simple and refined carbohydrates, unhealthy oils, and convenience, processed foods.
Excessive alcohol and caffeine intake can also cause sleep problems. Alcohol can disrupt your body's circadian rhythms and interfere with healthy REM sleep; while caffeine is a known stimulant that can leave you feeling on edge and unable to properly relax, thus preventing and interfering with sleep. Caffeine, in particular, has been linked by researchers to insomnia, periodic limb movement in sleep, and restless legs syndrome.
Drugs: Drugs, both legal and illegal, can be a powerful disruptor of healthy sleep patterns. Illicit drugs create a toxic burden in the body that can interfere with the ability to get a good night's rest. Many illegal drugs, such as amphetamines and cocaine, also act as stimulants, making sleep difficult and significantly altering the body's natural circadian rhythms.
Legal medications, both prescription and over-the-counter, can similarly affect your ability to get a good night's sleep. These include beta-blockers, cold and cough medicines (they contain caffeine and synthetic stimulants such as ephedrine), oral contraceptives, synthetic hormones, and thyroid medicines. In addition, all drugs, whether legal or illegal, create a toxic burden on the liver and can impair other organ systems as well, making sleep more difficult.
Food Allergies and Sensitivities: Food allergies and sensitivities can interfere with your ability to sleep peacefully and restfully and are a frequent cause of sleep disorders.
Among the ways that food allergies and sensitivities can cause or worsen sleeping problems are the resulting hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), as well as increased histamine production. Sugar and carbohydrate foods are frequent triggers of food allergies that cause spikes in blood sugar levels. When this happens, the body compensates by producing sudden amounts of insulin. This creates an adrenal stress reaction that puts the body in a state of stimulation characterized by jittery feelings and tension.
During allergic food reactions, the body can also produce elevated levels of histamine in the brain, disrupting brain chemistry. This, in turn, can greatly affect your ability to get a good night's sleep, and can often result in insomnia.
The most common foods that produce allergies and sensitivities are caffeine, chocolate, corn, dairy products, eggs, wheat, and wheat products, as well as sugars and refined carbohydrates. Any food can potentially trigger such reactions, however.
Note: If you suffer from sleeping problems that are accompanied by fatigue during the day (especially upon awakening and throughout the morning) and/or frequent feelings of irritability, most likely your condition is being caused or exacerbated by food allergies or sensitivities.
Geopathic Stress: Geopathic stress refers to energy fields within the earth that are imbalanced and capable of disrupting the bio-electrical fields, and, therefore, the health, of those who dwell near such areas, which are usually geological fault lines and certain large mineral deposits and streams. Manmade devices, such as computers, electric blankets and clocks, and electrically heated waterbeds, and well as common electrical currents of 60 cycle frequencies, can also cause geopathic stress, as can power lines and power generators.
Research has shown that natural geopathic stress zones beneath or near sleeping areas, as well as geopathic stress caused by manmade devices in the bedroom, can significantly affect a person's sleeping patterns, and can also cause or contribute to a wide range of other health problems, including cancer, depression, headaches, and migraines.
Hormone Imbalances: Hormone imbalances, such as excessive adrenaline and/or cortisone production, can keep your body in a state of stimulation, making sleep difficult. Lack of melatonin and serotonin, both of which are linked to healthy sleep, can also cause sleep disorders, as can the hormonal shifts that occur in both men and women as they transition into middle age and experience declines in their body's supply of sex hormones such as estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone.
Lack of Exercise: Lack of regular exercise typically results in chronic muscle tension and the buildup of stress in the body, which can make relaxing and falling asleep more difficult.
Other Disease Conditions: People afflicted with other disease conditions can often experience sleep disorders. However, when these other conditions are resolved, typically sleeping problems are resolved as well.
Psychological Factors: Various psychological factors, including unresolved anxiety, depression, despair, fear, and grief, as well as positive emotions such as excitement and euphoria, can interfere with your ability to get a good night's sleep. Such psychological factors can cause imbalances in your biochemistry and, if prolonged, can also create various other disturbances, such as indigestion and other gastrointestinal problems that can keep you awake at night. In addition, such factors can also interfere with the brain's ability to properly produce nerve signals and the hormones such as melatonin and serotonin needed for restful sleep. Chronic stress can also cause depletion of the adrenal glands, further aggravating sleep disorders.
Smoking: Smoking, as well as secondhand exposure to cigarette smoke, can interfere with healthy sleep because of the chemicals and nicotine cigarettes contain. Nicotine acts as a stimulant and can cause insomnia and other sleep disorders while many of the other chemicals contained in cigarettes can create a toxic burden on the liver to further disturb healthy sleep patterns.
Structural Imbalances: Structural imbalances in your body, such as muscle tension and/or a misaligned spine, can contribute to sleep disorders due to how such imbalances interfere with the flow of nerve signals to and from the brain. They can also keep you awake at night due to the pain they cause in the muscles and joints.
Toxicity: The buildup of toxins, especially in the colon and liver, can be another significant cause of, or contributing factor to sleep disorders. When the functioning of the colon and liver becomes impaired as a result of internal toxicity, a variety of health-related problems, such as allergies, candidiasis, gastrointestinal problems, and heartburn can soon follow, all of which can interfere with healthy sleep. In addition, certain heavy metals, such as mercury, which is commonly found in people with dental amalgam fillings, or those who regularly consume sea foods such as shark and tuna, and people who have received vaccinations, can also experience sleeping problems. Overall, toxins of any kind can also potentially deplete your body's supply of the nutrients and hormones necessary for regulating healthy sleep patterns.
Unhealthy Sleep Environment: The environment of your bedroom can have a major influence on the quality of your sleep. Bedrooms that are excessively cold, hot, or humid, or which have poor indoor air quality and ventilation, can make healthy sleep difficult, as can sleeping in rooms that let in light from windows or other rooms, as well as sleeping on mattresses that are too hard, soft, or otherwise uncomfortable.