Understanding the Main Sleep Disorders

Sleep disorders refer to specific conditions that affect sleep quality, timing, and/or duration. They significantly impact a person’s ability to function optimally while they are awake and can negatively affect health. Sleep disorders often occur alongside other medical conditions or other mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety.


  • What is it? Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder, with about 15% of adults suffering from ongoing (chronic) insomnia and 20% experiencing intermittent (short-term) insomnia. Individuals with insomnia typically either struggle to fall asleep, stay asleep, or wake up too early, leading to chronic sleep deprivation.
  • Symptoms: Symptoms include difficulty falling asleep (>30 minutes), staying asleep, or waking up frequently during the night on at least three nights of the week. This is accompanied by feeling tired and irritable during the day.
  • Causes: While some people may be more prone to insomnia than others, is usually caused by a triggering event, or by poorly managed stress, anxiety, depression, or even certain medications. Unfortunately, short-term insomnia can turn into a long-term battle if allowed to continue for two long since the poor sleep associated with insomnia can become habitual.

Obstructive sleep apnoea:

  • What is it? Obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA) is a sleep-related breathing disorder characterized by periods of partial or complete pauses in breathing during sleep. OSA occurs when the upper airways collapse, preventing or limiting oxygen from being circulated to the body and brain for anywhere between 10 seconds and more than a minute
  • Symptoms: Common symptoms include loud snoring, choking or gasping for air during sleep, and excessive daytime fatigue.
  • Risk factors: Excess body weight is the major risk factor for obstructive sleep apnoea. Other risk factors include a large neck size, being older, being male, having a narrow airway, family history and smoking.

Circadian Rhythm Sleep Disorders:

  • What is it? Circadian rhythm sleep disorders (also known as sleep-wake phase disorders) refer to problems that occur with sleep when the body’s internal 24h clock is out of sync with the environment. There are also different types of circadian rhythm sleep disorders: delayed sleep-wake phase disorder, advanced sleep-wake phase disorder, irregular sleep-wake rhythm disorder and shift work disorder, to name a few.
  • Symptoms: Symptoms for these disorders vary, however, most cause excessive daytime sleepiness as a result of sleep which is either too short or mistimed. Other symptoms include long-term sleep disturbances, insomnia symptoms and significant impairments to the individual’s mental, physical, social or work performance that can be attributed to their sleep disturbances.
  • Causes: The primary cause of circadian rhythm disorders is due to a continuous misalignment between the internal body clock and a person’s external environment. On one hand there is a genetic component to susceptibility to these disorders, but causes also include frequent changes in work shift schedules, jet lag, irregular sleep timing, certain medications, poor sleep hygiene, the transition to adolescence and older age.


  • What is it? Narcolepsy is a lifelong neurological disorder that is characterized by instability between the states of sleep and wakefulness. These patients suffer from sleep attacks during the day time, and have non-refreshing sleep at night, often with more rapid eye movement (REM) sleep than most people. Type 1 narcolepsy type 1 is characterised by excessive daytime sleepiness, with low or absent hypocretin/orexin levels and cataplexy – a sudden loss in muscle tone while awake. Type 2 narcolepsy is also characterised by excessive daytime sleepiness but does not have the cataplexy feature.
  • Symptoms: Symptoms include excessive daytime sleepiness and sudden sleep attacks (i.e. falling asleep at inappropriate times like driving or working). Other symptoms include sleep paralysis, hallucinations, cataplexy and disrupted/fragmented night time sleep.
  • Causes: The exact cause of narcolepsy is unknown. In people with type 1 narcolepsy, low levels of hypocretin/orexin may be partially responsible for the condition. It’s also likely that genetics play a role in narcolepsy.

Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS):

  • What is it? RLS is characterized by an irresistible urge to move the legs, typically during periods of rest such as lying down to sleep.
  • Symptoms: The primary symptom of RLS is a sensation of discomfort in the legs that is often difficult to describe (e.g. crawling, burning or itching). The symptoms are frequently worse at night.
  • Causes: Causes of RLS vary from person to person but some of the common ones are low iron levels, diabetes, pregnancy and certain medications.

Sleep disorders can significantly impact a person’s quality of life, leading to physical, mental, and emotional health problems. Recognizing the symptoms of these disorders is the first step towards seeking appropriate diagnosis and treatment. If you suspect you have a sleep disorder, please consult a healthcare professional who can provide guidance and support.

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