More than a bad night’s sleep

Ideally, we should spend a third of our lives asleep, as our body uses sleep to produce chemicals that help it to grow, repair and boost the immune system. We explore some of the sleep disorders that maybe preventing us getting that vital eight hours sleep.


Possibly one of the most common sleep disorders, someone with insomnia experiences persistent problems with sleep, lasting for over a month. Issues may include difficulty falling asleep, waking up during the night, waking early and being unable to return to sleep and experiencing poor sleep quality.


According to the National Sleep Foundation, snoring is defined as noisy breathing during sleep, and while snoring affects people of all ages and genders, it is more common amongst men than women. The noisy ‘snores’ occur when the muscles of the throat relax, and the tongue falls backward, and the throat becomes narrow and in a state of ‘floppiness’. Snoring that is consistently loud and pronounced may actually be a form of sleep apnea.

Obstructive Sleep Apnoea 

This is another common sleep disorder where there are one or more pauses in breathing or low breathing during sleep. This occurs because the upper passages of a person’s airways close up, cutting off oxygen and interrupting breathing until the person wakes up and starts breathing again.


A chronic disorder of the central nervous system characterised by the brain’s inability to control sleep-wake cycles, causing an excessive urge to fall into a deep sleep at inappropriate times. According to, narcolepsy affects 1 in 2000 people, and is also referred to as a ‘unplanned sleep attack’. Narcolepsy can not only be embarrassing, it can be dangerous, as it can occur at anytime, even when a person is driving.

Periodic limb movements of sleep 

This sleep disorder is characterised by intermittent jerks of the legs, feet, arms or twitching of the hips that occur as an individual enters slow wave sleep and can cause arousal from sleep. It occurs uncontrollably about every 10 to 60 seconds. This condition is more common in older people.


Internationally renowned sleep expert, Doctor Carmel Harrington PHD, Director of Sleep for Health and an Honorary Research Fellow at the Children’s Hospital Westmead, defines nightmares as a legitimate sleep disorder. Common causes include stress, anxiety and even certain forms of medication and other drugs. When people begin to experience nightmares to the point of regular interference with sleep patterns, treatment is recommended using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

What Causes Sleep Problems?

The list of causes for sleep disorders include multiple factors, some of which are environmental that can be altered or controlled, while other factors may need treatment through medication or therapies such as CBT.

Environmental factors that may cause sleep problems or disorders:

  • Noise, temperature, light
  • Anxiety and stress
  • Diet, lack of exercise, alcohol and caffeine intake

Non-environmental factors that may cause sleep problems or disorders:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Physical ailments such as ulcers
  • Respiratory issues such as asthma
  • Genetics (Researchers have found a genetic basis for narcolepsy and periodic limb movements are believed to originate in the nervous system)
  • Prescribed medication and drugs
  • Physical changes to the body through ageing (i.e. menopause).