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Sleep disorders: causes & home remedies

by Josephine Andrews
Published: Last Updated on 304 views

Sleep disorders are common. Not all sleep disorders are the same: there are, for example, problems falling asleep and sleeping through the night (insomnia), various types of daytime sleepiness (hypersomnia), sleep-related movement disorders (such as restless legs syndrome) and sleep-related breathing disorders (e.g. sleep apnea). Read more about the causes and forms of insomnia and what you can do about it!

quick overview

  • Description: Trouble falling asleep and/or staying asleep, feeling excessively tired during the day
  • Symptoms: Varies depending on the type of sleep disorder; in addition to fatigue, for example headaches, memory problems, eating disorders, teeth grinding, movement disorders of the limbs, respiratory disorders, sleepwalking
  • Causes: Stress or unfavorable sleeping conditions, but also mental, organic or neurological diseases, medicines, drugs
  • Tips: Ensure good sleep hygiene (regular bedtimes, pleasant bedroom temperature, no coffee or alcohol in the evening), do not try to force yourself to fall asleep, relaxation techniques (yoga, meditation, etc.), medicinal herbs (teas), sleep-inducing baths
  • When to the doctor? With persistent sleep disturbances; if sleep disorders are a massive burden; for tiredness and lack of concentration during the day. The first point of contact is the family doctor. If necessary, he will refer you to a specialist.

Sleep disorders: description

Almost everyone has short-term sleep problems lasting a few days in stressful phases of life, during an illness (e.g. a cold with a cough and a stuffy nose) or due to stressful situations. Most of the time they are harmless.

Unlike “real” sleep disorders. These are sleep problems that occur over a longer period of time (from three to four weeks) and significantly impair the performance of those affected. They can be both physical and psychological. You should therefore have the cause clarified.

Sleep disorders are widespread and not trivial. Chronic sleep disorders in particular can severely limit the daytime well-being and performance of those affected, impair their social skills and lead to accidents.

Sleep disorders: how do they manifest themselves?

Experts distinguish more than 80 different sleep disorders, which can be divided into eight main groups according to the type of complaint:

  1. Insomnia: This includes problems falling asleep, problems sleeping through the night, waking up early in the morning and chronically restless sleep. In addition, those affected complain, for example, of tiredness, attention or memory problems, mood disorders, tension, headaches and/or worries about the sleep disorder. Insomnia is one of the most common forms of sleep disorders. They can be triggered, for example, by psychological stress (e.g. financial worries) or drug abuse (e.g. excessive use of sleeping pills).
  2. Sleep- Related Breathing Disorders: They include various forms of sleep apnea , for example . This leads to nocturnal breathing pauses, so breathing pauses for a short time – often unnoticed by the sleeper.
  3. Hypersomnias of central nervous origin: With these sleep disorders, those affected primarily suffer from excessive sleepiness during the day, although the amount of sleep at night is not reduced and there is no circadian rhythm disorder (i.e. a disorder of the individual day-night rhythm). Hypersomnias include, for example, narcolepsy (” sleeping sickness “) and daytime sleepiness due to traumatic brain damage or as a result of drug or substance abuse.
  4. Circadian sleep-wake rhythm disorders: Such rhythm sleep disorders can be triggered by time zone changes ( jet lag ), shift work, organic diseases or drug or substance abuse. They lead to insomnia and massive daytime sleepiness.
  5. Parasomnias: These are episodic interruptions in sleep caused by unusual physical phenomena or behaviors such as sleepwalking, nightmares, nocturnal moaning, sleep-related eating disorder, or repetitive, unconscious voiding during sleep.
  6. Sleep-related movement disorders: The sleep disorders here are caused by simple, mostly stereotyped movements. A common sleep-related movement disorder is restless legs syndrome (RLS) . Other sleep disorders in this category include periodic limb movement disorders and nighttime teeth grinding.
  7. Isolated symptoms, normal variants, unresolved problems: This category includes all sleep-related symptoms that stand on the border between “normal” and pathological (pathological) or that cannot yet be clearly classified as normal or pathological from a scientific point of view. Examples: short sleepers (need less than five hours of sleep per 24 hours), late sleepers (usually need more than ten to twelve hours of sleep per 24 hours) and strong, repeated muscle twitches when falling asleep (sleep jerks). Primary (benign) snoring and talking during sleep are also assigned to this category, although they usually do not disturb the sleep of the person concerned – but that of the person next to the bed.
  8. Other sleep disorders: This refers to all sleep disorders that cannot be assigned to any of the other categories, for example because they have not yet been sufficiently studied or because they have characteristics of different categories of sleep disorders.

The various sleep disorders can overlap. For example, some people suffer from problems falling asleep and staying asleep (insomnia), sleepwalking (a form of parasomnia) and sleep-related breathing disorders. This is what makes the subject of sleep disorders so complex.

Sleep disorders: causes and possible diseases

Sleep disorders can be divided into primary and secondary sleep disorders:

Primary sleep disorders

No physical or psychological cause can be found for primary sleep disorders. They are caused, for example, by stress or unfavorable sleeping conditions.

Secondary sleep disorders

Secondary sleep disorders have a physical (organic) or psychological or psychiatric cause:

  • Mental illnesses such as depression , anxiety disorders (e.g. generalized anxiety disorder ), psychoses or schizophrenia almost always trigger sleep disorders (e.g. problems falling asleep and sleeping through the night).
  • Organic or neurological diseases can also be the reason for sleep disorders such as problems falling asleep and staying asleep (insomnia), hypersomnia or circadian rhythm sleep disorders. Examples are chronic pain (e.g. in rheumatic diseases), cancer, hormonal diseases (e.g. overactive or underactive thyroid), restless legs syndrome, heart and lung diseases, chronic kidney or gastrointestinal diseases , Parkinson’s disease , dementia , multiple sclerosis , meningitis , stroke , brain tumors and epilepsy .
  • Medications can sometimes cause trouble sleeping as a side effect. These include antibiotics, certain antidepressants (e.g. MAO inhibitors, SSRIs), high blood pressure medications (e.g. alpha blockers), asthma medications (e.g. theophylline ), sleeping pills such as benzodiazepines (repeated sleep disturbances after abrupt discontinuation). of the preparations), cortisone, thyroid hormones, drugs for dementia, water tablets (diuretics), antihistamines (allergy drugs) and drugs that cancer patients receive as part of chemotherapy (cytostatics).
  • Legal and illegal drugs can also cause sleep disorders, for example in the form of difficulty falling asleep, sleeping through the night or sleep apnea. Examples of sleep-disrupting drugs include alcohol, caffeine (e.g. coffee, black tea, energy drinks), nicotine, cannabis , heroin , cocaine and ecstasy .

Sleep disorders: what can you do yourself?

Sometimes a physical or mental illness is the cause of insomnia. In such cases, their treatment by the doctor is of course the top priority. In these cases, you can also do something to help yourself against the sleep disorders.

This applies even more to sleep disorders that are not based on a disease, for example when stress, inner restlessness or unfavorable sleeping conditions are the cause of difficulties falling asleep, sleeping through the night or waking up early in the morning (insomnia).

Sleeping pills are rarely necessary for the treatment of insomnia – and should only be taken for a short time, as they quickly become addictive.

Rules for a restful sleep

Two thirds of all sleep disorders can be improved with non-drug measures. This includes good sleep hygiene. It includes the following rules:

  • Don’t sleep more than your body needs. This is particularly important for older people.
  • Get in the habit of regular bedtimes.
  • Do not take a nap during the day (e.g. afternoon nap).
  • Provide comfortable sleeping conditions. This also includes the right bedroom temperature (about 18 °C is optimal).
  • Do not drink alcohol or coffee in the evening – both have a stimulating effect. Those who are sensitive to caffeine should avoid it from midday. This also applies to cola, energy drinks and cocoa.
  • Ensure a balanced diet and regular physical training. If you only eat fast food and sit on the couch all day, you shouldn’t be surprised if you have trouble sleeping.
  • Make sure you have a relaxing evening plan that slowly brings the day to a close. On the other hand, strenuous fitness training in the evening or an exciting thriller as evening reading can promote sleep disorders (e.g. difficulty falling asleep).

Tips against insomnia

In addition to good sleep hygiene, the following tips can also help against sleep disorders:

  • Stimulus control : Only use the bed and bedroom for sleeping and not also, for example, for watching TV. Going to bed is then the signal “bedtime” for the body.
  • Sleep restriction: Sounds paradoxical, but it helps: Healthy people with sleep problems who reduce their nightly sleep load for at least a week fall asleep more quickly the following night, they sleep deeper and wake up less often at night. A therapist can calculate how long bedtime should be shortened in individual cases. To do this, you must first keep a sleep diary for two weeks in which you record the time spent in bed for each night and estimate the time you fell asleep, the frequency you woke up and the total sleep time.
  • No spasmodic attempts to fall asleep : Instead of tossing and turning restlessly for hours at night, some sufferers find it helpful to reach for a relaxing book or to get up and do something active (e.g. ironing).
  • Paradoxical intention : If you have trouble falling asleep, you can try the “wake command”: When you lie down, tell yourself to stay awake. This often puts you to sleep faster than struggling to sleep.
  • Cognitive Focus : In bed, focus on calming thoughts and images.
  • Don’t be afraid of bad sleep : Avoid thoughts like “I’m sure I won’t be able to sleep through the night again today!” or “Oh god, it’s past midnight and I’m still awake!”. Such anxious thoughts can increase your insomnia.
  • Stopping thoughts: If constant circling thoughts and brooding prevent you from falling asleep, you should stop such thoughts rigorously – each time anew (perhaps with a loud or imaginary, but in any case decisive “Stop!”).
  • Relaxation methods : Progressive muscle relaxation , autogenic training , biofeedback , yoga and meditation can also relieve sleep disorders in the long term.

sleeping pills (hypnotics)

In principle, sleeping pills should only be used for sleep disorders if all other measures (e.g. sleep hygiene, sleep restriction, medicinal plants – see below) have been unsuccessful. It is best to consult your doctor about this.

Keep in mind that many of these medications can lead to habituation effects or dependence. Discontinuing it can temporarily make the sleep disorder worse again (rebound insomnia).

Many sleep medications decrease muscle tone and control, increasing the risk of falling at night. This effect and a reduced ability to concentrate can last into the day and limit performance.

You should therefore always take such sleeping medication (observe the package insert!) in the evening before going to bed and not when you wake up at night or have already lain awake for a few hours.

Insomnia: home remedies

If you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, there are a number of home remedies that can help.

Herbal teas for insomnia

There are several medicinal plants that can help with insomnia. They are mainly used as a tea:

Valerian : Valerian is the medicinal plant of choice for insomnia. It has a calming effect, but not anesthetic (narcotic) like chemical sleeping pills. A tea made from valerian root can help with sleep disorders caused by nervousness, inner restlessness or too much coffee. If you suffer from chronic insomnia, you should drink several cups of it throughout the day. If you don’t like the somewhat unpleasant taste of valerian, you can use tasteless valerian dragées, capsules or tablets.

Hops : It can enhance the sedative effects of valerian because a powerful sedative compound builds up in the hop cones during storage. You can use hops in tea form (eg as a hops-valerian tea mixture) or make yourself a sleeping pillow: Put hop cones in a cotton pillow and lay your head on it to sleep. Replace the hop cones after a week.

Lemon balm : Lemon balm is a well-known medicinal plant from monastic medicine. Lemon balm leaves and lemon balm oil have a calming effect (as well as improve digestion). Lemon balm oil is quite expensive, so you can use lemon balm leaves as a substitute. If you have trouble sleeping, you should drink several cups of lemon balm leaf tea throughout the day.

Lavender : With its purple flowers, it has long been prized for its calming and sleep-inducing effects. If you have trouble sleeping, drink two cups of lavender flower tea before bed.

Passion flower : This medicinal plant can help with mild forms of nervous restlessness, difficulty falling asleep and nervous heart problems. It has a heart strengthening, calming and antispasmodic effect. Passion flower herb is found in tea blends along with other calming and relaxing medicinal plants like lavender and valerian.

St. John’s Wort: The herb is primarily known as an herbal antidepressant. Because depression is often associated with sleep disorders, St. John’s wort can also contribute to a restful night’s sleep. The medicinal plant is taken as a tea or as a finished preparation (such as capsules, dragees).

St. John’s wort can reduce the effectiveness of birth control pills and other hormonal contraceptives, as well as many other medicines (eg, medicines for asthma and cardiac arrhythmias, coumarin-type blood thinners). Therefore, discuss the application with your doctor beforehand.

Soothing and sleep-inducing baths

Baths with medicinal herbs can also help with insomnia. You can either get a ready-made soothing bath from the pharmacy or drugstore or you can prepare the bath mixture yourself, such as a lavender bath:

For a full bath, mix two egg yolks, a cup of cream (or milk), two tablespoons of honey, three to four tablespoons of salt and a teaspoon of lavender oil and add to the 37 to 38°C bath water. Egg yolk, cream or milk and honey ensure that the essential oil not only floats on the water surface, but is evenly distributed in the water. You should bathe in it for at least 20 minutes.

You can also use lavender blossoms instead of lavender oil: Pour two liters of hot water over 100g of lavender blossoms, leave to steep for 5 minutes and add to the bath water. Bathing time again at least 20 minutes.

Rubbing with lavender oil

The essential oils of lavender (alternatively also thyme oil) can also be used for relaxing and sleep-inducing rubs.

For example, you can ask someone to warm a few drops of the oil in their hands and then rub it on your back for a few minutes (using only light pressure and avoiding the spine ).

You can rub your feet with lavender oil yourself. Work from the ankle to the toes.

For the rub (back, feet) it is best to lie down in bed so that you can rest immediately afterwards.

Cold for insomnia

Cold affusions : Evening affusions can have a sleep-inducing effect. To do this, use cold water at about 18 degrees Celsius. Start at the foot and then slowly run the water jet up the outside of the leg to the knee. Then let the jet travel downwards on the inside of the leg.

Then gently wipe off the water with a towel – do not dry off! You should repeat the cold leg affusions every evening.

Cold and damp calf wraps : They have a calming and relaxing effect, especially if they are on for a long time, for example overnight. Then they can also be used as a sleep aid.

You can read about how to use the wraps correctly and what you need to consider when using them in the article calf wraps .

Heat can promote sleep

Many also find warmth in bed pleasant before they go to sleep. As a simple home remedy for insomnia, you can put a hot -water bottle or a warm grain pillow (cherry stone pillow) on your bed. This has a relaxing effect and promotes blood circulation.

Another sleep-promoting heat application is a belly pad with chamomile : Pour half a liter of boiling water over one or two tablespoons of chamomile blossoms and leave covered for a maximum of five minutes. Then strain the flowers. Now put a wrap in the brew and let it steep for a few minutes. Place the soaked inner cloth tightly against the stomach and leave it on for 20 to 30 minutes. The abdominal support against sleep disorders is best used in the evening, before going to sleep.

You can read more about the correct use of wraps in the article wraps (envelopes) and pads .

Warm milk with honey to fall asleep

Warm milk with honey can help you fall asleep. Not only can it soothe an irritated throat mucosa (e.g. when you have a cold) – milk also contains the amino acid tryptophan. This boosts the release of the sleep hormone melatonin in the brain – when it reaches the brain.

To do this, tryptophan needs a means of transport: the transport protein albumin . However, other amino acids bind much better to the transport molecule. This is where honey comes into play: the carbohydrates it contains inhibit the transfer of amino acids into the brain – but tryptophan is an exception.

If you want to take advantage of this effect, warm milk for a glass or cup and dissolve a teaspoon of honey in it. Before going to bed, drink the honey milk in small sips, preferably lukewarm.

Babies under the age of one year are not allowed to eat honey. It can contain harmful bacterial toxins.

Home remedies have their limits. If the symptoms persist over a longer period of time, do not get better or even get worse, you should always consult a doctor.

sleep disorders in children

Restful sleep is extremely important for the development of children. Here are some tips to support restful sleep and counteract sleep disorders in children:

  • Regular sleeping and waking times : They are especially important for children. Make sure you strictly adhere to these times – including weekends and holidays.
  • Small sleep rituals : The bath every evening, a quiet game, the bedtime story or a song can help if you have trouble falling asleep. Make sure you do it regularly and consistently.
  • Darkened bedroom : The light in the child’s bedroom should be turned off or at least dimmed. A small night light is allowed if the child feels more comfortable.
  • Falling asleep in their own bed : Do not let the child fall asleep on the sofa in the living room or in your arms, otherwise they will get used to the wrong sleeping pattern.
  • No Pacifier or Bottle : Don’t try to lull a baby to sleep with a pacifier or bottle—even if it’s difficult.
  • Calm down : If your child is very upset, pick them up right away and rock them gently. Otherwise, try to calm it down in a different way first. Lean over them so they can see your face and talk to them softly. If that’s not enough, put a hand on his stomach. If they still can’t calm down, pick them up.
  • Openness : Unusual activities, illness, or family events can trigger temporary sleep disturbances in children. Then it can also help smaller children who can already speak if you talk to them about things that bother them or bother them – but during the day and not before bedtime.
  • Protecting little sleepwalkers : Sleepwalking in children tends to occur between the ages of four and eight and usually resolves itself. However, you should take safety precautions to avoid accidents during sleepwalking (e.g. safety latches on windows, barriers at the entrance stairs, alarm bell on the child’s room door to wake up the parents).
  • Panic Attack Safety : Nocturnal panic attacks tend to occur in children between the ages of four and twelve. The child suddenly wakes up screaming and often drenched in sweat, confused, disoriented and unable to remember any “bad dreams”. The next morning, the child usually knows nothing more about the panic attack. As a parent, there is little you can do about it other than comfort the startled child and reassure them that everything is fine. With increasing age, the panic attacks usually decrease and with them the sleep disturbances.

Insomnia: when do you need to see a doctor?

Sometimes sleep disorders go away on their own as soon as the trigger (e.g. a stressful phase at work, moving house, illness) is gone. In other cases, good sleep hygiene (see above) can eliminate the sleep disturbances. Going to the doctor is advisable if:

  • the insomnia persists (no restful and/or uninterrupted sleep three nights a week for at least a month),
  • the disturbed night’s sleep puts a massive strain on you and
  • You are often tired and unable to concentrate during the day.

If you have trouble sleeping, go to your family doctor first . Based on a detailed conversation to record the medical history, he can often deduce the cause of the sleep disorder, for example unfavorable sleeping conditions, an illness (such as depression, overactive or underactive thyroid gland) or taking a specific medication (e.g. antihypertensive drug).

Your family doctor may refer you to a specialist , for example an ENT doctor if you snore heavily. If necessary, he will also recommend a sleep doctor ( sleep laboratory ).

Sleep Disorders in Children: When to See a Doctor?

Sleep disorders in children can have a long-term impact on both the child and the whole family. In this case, you should go to the doctor. If necessary, they will refer you to a pediatric sleep specialist who is very familiar with sleep disorders in children.

Sleep disorders: what does the doctor do?

The doctor will first ask you in detail about your sleep disorder, your lifestyle, any previous illnesses and the medication you are taking. In this way, he can take your medical history (anamnesis) and often get the first clues as to the cause of the symptoms. Important information for the diagnosis is, for example:

  • Type of sleep disorder (eg, insomnia with difficulty falling asleep and/or staying asleep, hypersomnia with excessive sleep tendency, or daytime sleep attacks)
  • Duration, course and rhythm of the sleep disorder (sleep-wake cycle)
  • Sleep behavior and life circumstances that influence sleep (e.g.: how much time do you spend in bed? What is the evening like? Do you have certain sleeping habits?)
  • Environmental influences (e.g. noise, temperature in the bedroom)
  • Pre-treatment (e.g. taking sleeping pills)
  • Symptoms during the period of falling asleep and sleeping (circles of thoughts, brooding, tension , breathing disorders, restless legs, nightmares, etc.)
  • Daily condition (e.g. performance, activity)

In some cases, the doctor will ask the patient to fill out a sleep questionnaire and/or to keep a sleep diary for some time.

Examinations at the doctor

In order to get to the bottom of sleep disorders, the doctor can also carry out various examinations such as:

  • careful physical examination
  • Laboratory tests (e.g. measurement of thyroid hormones in the blood if a disorder of the thyroid gland is suspected as the cause of the sleep disorder)
  • Measurement of the electrical heart currents (electrocardiography = EKG )
  • Measurement of electrical brain waves (electroencephalography = EEG)

In the sleep lab

Measuring the sleep process in a sleep laboratory is the most complex procedure for diagnosing sleep disorders. It is only carried out if a sleep disorder cannot be clearly determined and assessed by the above-mentioned diagnostic steps (such as questioning the patient, sleep log, physical examinations). In most cases, these are sleep disorders with an internal cause (e.g. psychological causes).

The examination in the sleep laboratory takes place at night, i.e. the patient spends the night in their own bedroom in the laboratory, where the sleep physicians can monitor their sleep: the patient’s physiological signals are recorded, with the help of which sleep (with its various light – and deep sleep phases), the sleep disorder and diseases associated with sleep can be assessed quantitatively. As part of this so-called polysomnography (PSG), the following physiological functions are measured and recorded with the help of electrodes or sensors:

  • the brain waves (electroencephalography, EEG)
  • eye movements (electrooculography, EOG)
  • muscle activity (electromyography, EMG)
  • heart activity (electrocardiography, ECG)
  • respiratory flow and respiratory effort
  • the oxygen saturation
  • the body position

Sometimes the patient’s sleep is also recorded on video. In this way, any behavioral abnormalities during sleep can later be taken into account when evaluating the data.

If a sleep-related breathing disorder is suspected to be the cause of sleep disorders, a shortened procedure can also be used – the so-called polygraphy for sleep-related breathing disorders : Only oxygen saturation, respiratory flow, breathing effort, heart and pulse rate and body position during sleep are recorded. The results help the doctor to detect sleep-related breathing disorders and assess their severity. Appropriate measures can then be taken to alleviate the resulting sleep disturbance .

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