Sleep Disorders Demystified

Neuroscience_Neurology.jpgSleep is one of our most enigmatic functions. The uncertainties of why we sleep and the utter necessity of sleep are being incessantly investigated. Based on what we do know, it is fairly safe to assume that sleep is certainly vital to our well-being. The necessity of sleep can be determined by each one of us by simply observing and evaluating the effects on our body after just one sleepless night.

If sleep was unnecessary, then it surely could be evolution’s biggest blunder! Also, it would be hard to explain the millions of people that are suffering from various disorders due to the lack of sleep. It was about this that I had wanted to know more about when I started some research about sleep disorders. Apart from the basic knowledge I had on common sleep problems such as sleep apnea, sleep walking, nightmares, insomnia, etc, I did not know much else. Therefore, what I found was so intriguing that I wanted to share it with all of you. I figured if I did not know about these bizarre sleep disorders, there would certainly be one or two people out there who didn’t either!

Fatal familial insomnia is a very rare brain disease in which the patient loses the ability to fall asleep, forever. A genetic mutation of a protein is the underlying cause of this disease that produces plaques in the thalamus of the brain. As the thalamus is vital in regulating sleep and arousal, this leads to grave consequences. There is no treatment yet for this unkind degenerative disorder leaving the wakeful patients to gloomily wait for the day they will finally sleep.

Most people are aware that their bodies are paralyzed while they are asleep. However when we talk about sleep paralysis, it is the condition in which a person experiences an inability to move or speak while being awake. This usually happens just before falling asleep or soon after waking up from sleep, lasting anywhere from a few seconds to few minutes. This is known to be a relatively harmless condition, with a small psychological wound due to the fear experienced during the short paralysis. However, a more rare and fatal form of this sleep paralysis is believed to underlie the cause of death in healthy individuals, mainly in Southeast Asia (due to a genetic component). In these rare cases, extreme muscle atonia occurs during sleep paralysis resulting in the paralysis of the heart and the diaphragm which consequents to death. Scientists are relating this to another condition known as SUNDS (Sudden Unexplained Nocturnal Death Syndrome), which is in turn almost identical to another disorder, Brugada syndrome. This is supposedly an inherited condition, in which the ventricles of the heart beat so fast which is likely to result in a cardiac arrest.

Bedwetting, night terrors, sleep-talking and sleep-walking are things that the majority of us have experienced either in ourselves or someone in our family. These disorders in the sleep patterns are typified by partial arousals and are known as parasomnias. There exists a more severe and a relatively novel form of parasomnia as published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry in June 2003: “Sexomnia – A New Parasomnia.” This condition can vary in severity from just troublesome moaning to violent and sexual acts while asleep. Those who suffer from sexomnia do not remember any of their sexual acts that were executed during their sleep. The reported number of violent rape cases that have been committed by people in their sleep shows just how alarming and serious this can be. Due to the unknown fear and associated ignominy, people who suffer from this disorder are reluctant and unwilling to seek help. Sleep researchers have found this to be a medical disorder, quite similar to the other well known parasomnias and encourage sufferers to obtain treatment.

With most of the sleep disorders, treatment involves stress-reduction, sleep techniques and also drugs. However, some of these drugs have been found to be giving rather peculiar side-effects. A very popular sleeping drug, Ambien, seemed to be inducing rare sleep disorders such as sleep-eating (nocturnal sleep-related eating disorder, NS-RED). People with NS-RED, sleep walk their way into the kitchen at night and eat, without having any recollection of it in the morning. People have known to prepare meals even using microwave ovens. Not only is this dangerous as the person is not conscious, this condition can also lead to unwanted weight gain and lower self-esteem. That is not to say that all sleeping pills such as Ambien are ineffective. At the end of the day, it depends on the weighing of the risks versus the benefits on an individual basis.

So with all these disorders that deal with lack of sleep or disturbed sleep, I wondered if there exists a disorder that brings about too much sleep. And there is: Kleine-Levin Syndrome (KLS). This is a rare syndrome characterized by the need for excessive amounts of sleep with up to 20 hours a day. The patients only seem to be awake for eating and going to the bathroom. During these wakeful periods, individuals seem to be lethargic, confused and irritated. Even though the underlying cause for this condition is yet unknown, this disorder has established itself to be cyclical. When it does appear, KLS lasts for days to often weeks. As soon as these sleep episodes disappear, the person’s sleep patterns and generic behavior become normal. There are medications available to help people stay awake when KLS develops.

Somniphobia, which is of course, fear of sleep. Individuals suffering from this are afraid of going to bed and sleeping. This happens due to some type of unexplained anxiety and is considered a type of anxiety disorder. Therapists believe that there would have been a negative experience in the past which has associated itself with sleep and this fear of sleep could be our mind’s way of protecting individuals from re-experiencing that traumatic event. Counseling and relaxation techniques have been proved helpful in treating this disorder.

So there we are. I am sure that the more I dwell into this mysterious function the more bizarre disorders I will discover. Many studies have also reported that the number and type of sleep disorders have significantly increased in the past decade. May be this is due to our increasingly hectic lives that demand so much out of us, that we continue to steal time from our sleep in order to meet those demands. Whatever it may be, these sleep disorders are destructive and anything but humorous for those who suffer from it.