All about sleep disorders

Having trouble sleeping can be really frustrating, and can make it hard to go about your life during the day. Sometimes, difficulty sleeping is caused by a sleep disorder. Find out what sleep disorders actually are, what causes them, the different types of sleep disorders and how to get help.

Signs this might be a problem:

  • You have trouble getting to sleep most nights
  • You wake up often during the night
  • You feel exhausted, irritable and moody during the day
boy sleeping at library desk

What is a sleep disorder

Sleep disorders are problems that affect the quality and amount of sleep people get. This can mean trouble getting to sleep, abnormal breathing during sleep or feeling very tired during the day. Everyone has nights where they don’t sleep well, especially if they are unwell or really stressed. This is normal, and probably doesn’t mean you have a sleeping disorder. 

Sleep difficulties become a problem when low energy levels impact on your mood, health, concentration, learning and socialising. It can also be dangerous to be extremely tired if you drive a car or motorbike, or if your job involves operating heavy machinery. 

Causes of sleep disorders

Sleep disorders have many causes. Some of the main known causes include:

  • Suffering from depression, panic attacks or an anxiety disorder
  • Having large amounts of stimulants (eg.  alcohol, smoking, and caffeine)
  • Medical problems such as asthma, chronic pain or severe allergies
  • Some medications, such as steroids, diuretics, some pain killers and heart medications (ask your doctor if you think this is relevant to you)
  • Being obese significantly increases your chances of sleep problems, especially sleep apnoea

Types of sleep disorders


Insomnia is poor-quality sleep. This might mean that having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, or waking up early and not being able to get back to sleep. It’s really common, particularly in women. 

Temporary and short-term insomnia describes sleep problems that last from a few days to weeks. This is normally caused by a disruption to routine, worrying, or an emotional problem (like dealing with a bad break-up). Longer-lasting insomnia describes trouble sleeping for three or four nights a week for over a month. This is often due to anxiety, other sleeping problems or even pregnancy. 

Primary insomnia is a more chronic sleeping problem without a known reason, such as medical, environmental or psychological factors.  This can have a huge impact on an individual’s mood, energy, concentration and functioning. 

Sleep Apnoea

Sleep apnoea is a very common but often undetected sleep disorder, and is about twice as likely to occur in men than women. People with sleep apnoea stop breathing while they are asleep. These disruptions to breathing cause sleeping to be disturbed as well. The most noticeable signs are snoring at night and feeling extremely tired during the day. 

Restless Leg Syndrome

Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS) can start in early adulthood but is more common in middle-aged and older people. People who have RLS tend to experience an unpleasant and tingly sensation in their legs while they are trying to sleep. This gives people a strong urge to move their legs, which gets rid of the sensation but also makes it hard to get to sleep. Due to constant disruptions in sleep, suffers of RLS often experience extreme tiredness during the day. 


Narcolepsy is a rare sleep disorder that involves uncontrollable daytime sleepiness. It is caused by a problem in the brain area that controls sleeping. If you have narcolepsy, you may experience sudden and uncontrollable bouts of sleep, called “sleep attacks” while in the middle of talking, working, or even driving, regardless of how much you slept the previous night. 

Getting help for a sleep disorder

There are lots of things that can be done to improve sleep disorders. 

  • Ditch caffeine after midday by avoiding coffee, tea, or soft drinks.
  • Have at least 30 minutes before bed without television, using a mobile phone or laptop. The light from these devices can trick your brain into thinking it is daytime!
  • Keep a sleep diary. This can help you to identify factors worsening your sleep that you might not have realised. Include details like your mood, any food, drinks and medications consumed before bed, when you went to sleep and woke up as well.
  • Try to have a regular bedtime and keep the same routine before bed each night.

You may also need professional help to tackle your sleep problems. This includes:

  • Sleep medications that are prescribed by doctors but can only be taken temporarily 
  • Getting a referral from your GP to visit a sleep clinic in order to diagnose a severe sleep disorder 
  • Seeking help from a psychologist or counsellor if anxiety, depression or other metal health issues are affecting your sleep

What can I do now?

Last reviewed: 06 August, 2015
Did you find this article helpful?

You have already rated this article

Add a comment

Read the commenting guidelines: keep safe and respectful