Beyond Insomnia: Circadian Rhythm Disorders and Daytime Sleepiness

When someone mentions a sleep disorder, most of us think of insomnia (not being able to get enough sleep) and, maybe, narcolepsy (not being able to stay awake). But there are actually many more types of sleep disorders out there — more than 100 different types of sleep disorders, in fact. Two general categories of these are called circadian rhythm sleep disorders and excessive daytime sleepiness disorders.

If you work night shifts, have vision problems, seem to sleep on a different schedule than your peers, or can’t stay awake, read on to learn more about sleep disorders that could be affecting you and how you can get help.

Circadian Rhythm Disorders

Shift work disorder: This is a sleep problem that is directly related to a work schedule. If an individual’s job requires him or her to be working during normal sleep hours, the person’s sleep rhythm can get out of whack such that he or she cannot fall asleep when sleep is desired, needed, or expected.

Shift work disorder causes the internal body clock to become misaligned with the outside world. Eventually, if a person sticks to the same schedule, he or she can adapt to shift work and sleeping during the day, for example. But often schedules change, or flip back and forth, such that a person may work a few “nights” and then switch back to “days.” This can be confusing for the body and sleep can suffer.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, approximately 25–30% of shift workers experience symptoms of excessive sleepiness or insomnia.

Non-24 sleep wake disorder: Thanks to our body’s internal clock, most of us tend to get sleepy and want to go to bed about the same time each day. Then, in turn, we wake up at about the same time each morning. But people with non-24 sleep wake disorder can find themselves going to bed later each day and waking up later each morning — shifting their sleeping and waking hours off-schedule more and more, over time.

Typically, this disorder occurs in people who are blind because they can’t sense light and darkness in their days. But you don’t have to be blind to have non-24 sleep wake disorder. The problem can occur with autism, brain injury or brain tumors, lack of natural melatonin, or problems in the way your brain receives light signals from your eyes. Treatments are available to help.

Delayed Sleep Phase disorder: In some ways delayed phase sleep disorder is similar to non-24 sleep wake disorder in that the affected person’s preferred sleep time can be delayed three to six hours, compared to what’s considered a “traditional” bedtime. Due to the delay in falling asleep, the person will wake later (three to six hours later). This can cause social, school, and work-related difficulties. If the affected person uses an alarm in order to be on-time to morning appointments, he or she will not get adequate sleep.

Excessive Daytime Sleepiness Disorders

Narcolepsy: This is probably the most well-known sleep disorder after insomnia. Narcolepsy is typified by uncontrollable sleeping during the day at inconvenient and undesirable times. Other symptoms include excessive sleepiness or sleep paralysis (feelings of being conscious but unable to move that can last for a few seconds to a few minutes).

Symptoms usually first appear in childhood or the teen years with about 1 in every 2,000 people being affected. Nighttime sleep may be disrupted and nightmares can be common. Narcolepsy is caused by a lack of a brain chemical called hypocretin. Without hypocretin, the brain cannot keep a person awake and can’t regulate sleep-wake cycles properly.

Extreme or excessive sleepiness: For some people, even 10 hours of sleep per night, plus daytime naps, is not enough. Also called “hypersomnia,” this type of extreme sleepiness should be discussed with a physician or sleep specialist. A healthcare provider should conduct an assessment to rule out other medical conditions such as sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome as they can cause sub-par sleep and lead to extreme sleepiness during the day. Medications may be able to help but if a person has stand-alone hypersomnia (not related to another medical condition), he or she will also likely need to continue to build extra sleep time into his or her schedule.

Seeking Help

Does any of this sound familiar? If so, we encourage you to discuss your sleep concerns with your healthcare provider or with a sleep therapist. Experts can help you to achieve the sleep you need for health and wellbeing. At your appointment, provide your practitioner with detailed information about your sleep times, habits and quality. The Circady app can make that part easy – it’s free, convenient, and you only need to use it for a single week. After those seven days, you’ll get a detailed report that will give your healthcare provider a head start in figuring out how to help you next.

Additional Support and Information

Of course, circadian rhythm disorders and excessive daytime sleepiness are not the only things that can disrupt sleep-related wellness. Depression, anxiety, and sleep movement disorders can also plague rest. As can chronic or acute insomnia. To learn more, read the blogs we’ve written on these topics and keep watching — we’ll soon add information about sleep apnea, nightmares and more.

For immediate action, try our eight tips to help prevent insomnia tonight and discover the benefits of tracking your sleep with Circady.

The Dalai Lama says sleep is the best meditation. Here at Circady, we’re striving to help get you on this path to better sleep. Thanks for reading and good night tonight!