Sleepless nights: Rest is up to you

Simple changes in daily habits can prevent sleepless nights.

Kifah Qasim July 27, 2014

If you’re experiencing sleepless nights and irregular sleep cycles, don’t sleep on it. They could be signs of a sleeping disorder.

According to the 2002 research, ‘Epidemiology of Insomnia’ by Maurice M Ohayon, published in Sleep Medicine Reviews, one-third of the general population of the world is suffering from insomnia. Insomnia is, however, just one of the many types of sleeping disorders prevalent today; there are over 50 others that are recognised by the medical world. Dr Hashir Majid, assistant professor at the Department of Medicine at the Aga Khan University, Karachi, who specialises in sleep medicine, lists the most commonly found ones:

Obstructive Sleep Apnoea (OSA): a breathing disorder that causes disruption in the continuity of sleep.

Insomnia: the inability to fall asleep, or to stay in a continuous sleep.

Restless Leg Syndrome: patients move their legs restlessly right before they are about to fall asleep due to strange and uncomfortable sensations in the legs.

Narcolepsy: excessive sleepiness during odd hours.

Circadian Rhythm disorders: sleep cycle is interrupted and the internal clock runs slower or faster than that of an average person.

Contrary to popular belief, sleeplessness is just one of the many after-effects of a sleeping disorder. Along with impacting sleep, it has been repeatedly documented that insomniacs also have a tendency to suffer from major depressive episodes. A study published in November 2013 by the non-profit organisation Helpguide found that lack of quality sleep can also impact physical well-being, energy levels and an individual’s emotional balance.

While much research has been conducted on sleep disorders in the last two decades, this area of study remains mostly untouched in most South Asian countries, including Pakistan. “It is almost impossible to know the exact figures, but going by clinical experience and the use of sleeping pills in our society, it is likely that sleep disorders are relatively common,” says Dr Murad Moosa Khan, a consultant psychiatrist and chairman of the department of Psychiatry at the Aga Khan University, Karachi.

The general lack of awareness about these disorders, therefore, has led to a rise in the trend of self-medication. Dr Majid strongly discourages the use of over-the-counter medicines. Medicines like Xanax, if used for a prolonged period of time, can severely impact health and should be taken only under a sleep specialist’s supervision. Both doctors recommend that people who face irregular or disturbed sleep on a long-term basis must consult a sleep specialist. “It is not the physician or a family doctor but a specialist who will correctly diagnose the disorder,” says Dr Murad. “There are only a few sleep specialist doctors in the country, and they should be contacted.”

Along with a consulting a specialist, small changes in one’s daily routine can also have a significant impact on their sleep cycle. The 2011 and 2014 polls by the National Sleep Foundation in the USA found that the use of electronics in the bedroom, excessive workload and lenient bed timings were the major causes of a lack of sleep. Here are a few measures that one can take to improve sleep cycles:

• Reduced intake of caffeine and nicotine, and absolutely none after lunch.

• Warm showers before going to bed.

• No watching television, using the laptop or mobile phones before bed. The light emitted from the screen can keep you up all night.

• Exercise for five to six hours before bed.

• Fix one time for going to bed and one for waking up and avoid afternoon naps.

• Do not read just before going to bed.

Kifah Qasim is a freelance writer based in Karachi.

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, July 27th,  2014.