According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM), approximately 70 million Americans suffer from some type of sleep disorder, with at least 12 to 18 million adults struggling with sleep apnea alone. The numbers are so bad, in fact, that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has declared the prevalence of sleep issues in the United States a public health problem.
Caught up in our fast-paced lives, many of us are unaware of just how important sleep is to our overall well-being. But not getting the right amount and type of sleep affects not only our quality of life but also our long-term health. In fact, poor sleep has been linked to:
If you’re experiencing sleep problems—whether difficulty falling or staying asleep or a more serious condition like sleep apnea—read on to discover the various causes and types of sleep disorders and how amino acids may be just what you need to take control of your sleep and your health.
Causes of Sleep Disorders
While some sleep disorders can result in excessive hours spent sleeping, most people probably have more experience with the occasional poor sleep that comes with acute stress and results in symptoms of sleep deprivation.
However, problems sleeping that last only a short time aren’t considered a sleep disorder. It’s when disturbances to the normal sleep pattern become chronic that the term disorder is applied.
Yet different sleep disorders may also have their roots in different causes. Some common causes include:
- Respiratory problems: Allergies, colds, and respiratory issues can cause breathing difficulties and lead to sleep disorders.
- Nocturia: Waking up one or more times from sleep to urinate—otherwise known as nocturia—is widely recognized as disruptive to sleep and can actually be both a cause and symptom of a sleep disorder. Conditions that may contribute to nocturia include prostate enlargement, hormonal imbalances, and diseases of the urinary tract.
- Chronic pain: Conditions that lead to chronic pain are known to affect sleep patterns. Common causes of persistent pain include arthritis, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, inflammatory bowel disease, headaches, and back issues.
- Stress and anxiety: Stress and anxiety are both linked to issues affecting sleep quality, and both have been shown to cause sleeping problems or worsen existing ones. A survey commissioned by the Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA) also found that about a third of adults in the United States experience excessive stress or anxiety on a regular basis, and 7 out of 10 of these report trouble sleeping. On the flip side, sleep deprivation can lead to increased levels of stress and anxiety, resulting in a vicious cycle.
Types of Sleep Disorders
There are literally dozens of different sleep disorders, but each is classified according to six specific categories:
- Insomnia: This category includes four different types of insomnia, including both chronic and short-term insomnia disorders.
- Sleep-related breathing disorders: This category includes conditions such as obstructive sleep apnea and snoring.
- Central disorders of hypersomnolence: This category includes disorders like narcolepsy and excessive daytime sleepiness or prolonged nighttime sleep (hypersomnia).
- Circadian rhythm sleep-wake disorders: This category includes sleep-wake phase disorders and disorders related to both shift work and jet lag.
- Parasomnias: The parasomnias include conditions such as REM sleep behavior disorder, sleepwalking, and teeth grinding and more frightening disorders like sleep terrors and exploding head syndrome.
- Sleep-related movement disorders: This category includes conditions such as restless legs syndrome (RLS) and various movement disorders.
Of the many different types of sleep disorders, four are actually responsible for wreaking the most havoc in people’s lives. These are:
- Sleep apnea
Of the four most common sleep disorders, insomnia is the condition experienced most frequently. Affecting as many as a third of Americans, this disorder makes it hard to fall or stay asleep. Many adults experience short-term insomnia in response to stressful periods or traumatic events, but insomnia can sometimes last for a month or more, and when this happens, it’s known as chronic insomnia.
While insomnia may be caused by an imbalance in the brain’s neurotransmitters and thus its sleep-wake cycle, in some cases, it’s associated with medical conditions, such as allergies, hyperthyroidism, or reflux, or other sleep disorders, such as RLS or sleep apnea. In addition, insomnia can be the result of psychiatric conditions, such as anxiety or depression.
Insomnia can also occur in the absence of any underlying psychiatric or medical condition, with certain lifestyles and behaviors contributing to the disorder. For example, working irregular hours, watching TV or using a cellphone before bed, sleeping in a room that’s too hot or cold, eating a heavy meal close to bedtime, or using stimulants like caffeine or nicotine can all lead to insomnia.
Sleep apnea is a potentially serious condition in which a person repeatedly stops breathing during sleep. There are actually two types of sleep apnea:
- Obstructive sleep apnea
- Central sleep apnea
Of the two types, obstructive sleep apnea is the more common form and is caused by an airway blockage that occurs when the muscles in the back of the throat relax. When this happens, the oxygen level in the blood tends to fall, and the brain senses the inability to breathe and briefly rouses the person from sleep so they can reopen their airway.
This process can occur 5 to 30 times or more every hour while someone is asleep, and the awakenings are so brief that most people aren’t even aware of them. Obstructive sleep apnea is also associated with frequent and loud snoring.
Central sleep apnea is a less common form of sleep apnea that occurs when the brain fails to transmit the signal to breathe to the respiratory muscles. The person who experiences this type of sleep apnea may awaken with shortness of breath or have difficulty falling or staying asleep. This form of sleep apnea may be caused by a number of conditions, including heart failure and stroke.
RLS is a neurological disorder characterized by an overwhelming urge to move the legs. As you might imagine, this can make it difficult to fall and stay asleep.
Even though RLS is a neurological disorder and can occur any time a person is at rest, including while driving a car, it’s considered a sleep movement disorder because symptoms are triggered by resting and attempting to sleep and result in movement in an effort to stop the uncomfortable sensations associated with the condition.
The hallmarks of RLS are these sensations that begin after rest (sitting, lying down) and the temporary relief that comes with movement (stretching, walking), but RLS is also characterized by worsening of symptoms in the evening and periodic limb movements of sleep (twitching, jerking).
The sensations experienced by people who suffer from RLS may be described as:
Though there’s evidence that RLS is associated with a variety of factors, including genetic predisposition, low iron levels, certain medications, and neuropathy, research also strongly suggests that the disorder is related to disruptions in the function of dopamine in the brain.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter needed to produce smooth, purposeful muscle movements. However, disruption of the pathways that control its production and release can result in involuntary movements, such as those seen in RLS.
Like RLS, narcolepsy is also considered a neurological disorder. However, narcolepsy is a disorder that affects the control of both sleep and wakefulness.
People with the condition experience excessive daytime sleepiness—often struggling to stay awake for long periods of time—and intermittent, uncontrollable episodes of falling asleep. Symptoms of narcolepsy usually begin between the ages of 10 and 25 and may include:
- Excessive sleepiness: People with narcolepsy fall asleep without warning, no matter where they are or what they’re doing. Excessive daytime sleepiness is usually the first symptom to appear and can affect the ability to concentrate and function normally.
- Sudden muscle weakness: Some people with narcolepsy may experience sudden and uncontrollable muscle weakness known as cataplexy. This weakness is often triggered by strong emotions, such as excitement or fear, and may last a few seconds to a few minutes.
- Sleep paralysis: When falling asleep, people with narcolepsy might experience a temporary inability to move or speak called sleep paralysis. This paralysis is similar to the temporary paralysis that normally occurs during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.
- REM changes and hallucinations: When struck by sudden attacks of sleep, people with narcolepsy may quickly transition into REM sleep. Narcolepsy can also lead to vivid hallucinations that occur either upon falling asleep (hypnagogic) or on waking (hypnopompic).
Narcolepsy is now thought to be caused by a deficiency in the neurons that produce orexin (also called hypocretin)—a neurotransmitter that helps sustain alertness and prevent REM sleep from occurring at inappropriate moments.
Treatment for Sleep Disorders
Treatment for sleep disorders depends on the type of disorder and the underlying cause. For the sleep disorders discussed in this article, various treatments may be offered.
- Insomnia: For insomnia caused by anxiety or depression, antidepressants or antianxiety medications may be prescribed. A combination of lifestyle changes (such as avoiding stimulants and following a bedtime routine) and nonmedical therapies (such as cognitive behavioral therapy, hypnosis, and relaxation techniques) may also be used.
- Sleep apnea: Common treatments for sleep apnea may include dental appliances, continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP), weight loss, or surgery.
- RLS: Lifestyle changes and medication may be used in the treatment of RLS.
- Narcolepsy: Both scheduled naps and medication may be used to treat narcolepsy.
Amino Acids for Sleep Disorders
Not only do amino acids participate in almost all biological processes, but they’re also essential for well-being. In addition to the more standard therapies available, a growing body of evidence indicates that amino acids may also play a role in supporting healthy sleep patterns.
Three amino acids that have shown efficacy in treating sleep disorders are:
- Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA)
In addition to GABA being the principal inhibitory neurotransmitter of the central nervous system, research has shown that activation of GABA receptors helps induce sleep.
One recent study revealed that GABA in combination with 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP)—an amino acid that also acts as a precursor of serotonin, the brain’s feel-good hormone—may improve both sleep quality and quantity in people with mild to moderate insomnia.
Like 5-HTP, the amino acid tryptophan, or L-tryptophan, also functions as a precursor of serotonin. Serotonin plays a role in both mood and sleep, which helps explain the interconnectedness of conditions like depression and anxiety and sleep disorders.
In addition, serotonin is also a precursor of melatonin—the hormone that helps regulate your sleep-wake cycle. When levels of both of these hormones are low, sleep suffers. By increasing levels of serotonin in the brain, amino acids like 5-HTP and tryptophan help increase feelings of well-being and regulate sleep.
In addition, a 2012 study showed that glycine can significantly reduce fatigue and sleepiness in people experiencing sleep deprivation. And similar to 5-HTP and tryptophan, glycine also helps increase serotonin levels and correct circadian rhythm disorders.
While amino acids play a crucial role in brain health and thus a critical role in sleep, it’s important to remember that amino acids work best when they’re in balance, so be sure to look for a balanced amino acid blend that emphasizes the condition you’re trying to target.
There’s no denying that sleep is important for both physical and mental health, and without a healthy sleep cycle, we put our long-term well-being at risk. So if you’ve tried everything you can think of and still feel better sleep is beyond your reach, speak with your health care provider. The answer to your sleep woes is out there, and they can help you find it.