Hypersomnia: causes and symptoms of excessive sleepiness

September 21, 2020 4 mins read
Hypersomnia: causes and symptoms of excessive sleepiness

Hypersomnia, also known as excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS), is a sleep-wake disorder. This means that at any time, day or night, you can suddenly be overcome with an overwhelming need to sleep.

Not to be confused with narcolepsy (a more severe and rare condition), hypersomnia describes extreme fatigue or oversleeping. Brought on most commonly by chronic sleep deprivation, it affects (in various degrees) more people than you think.

Could hypersomnia be affecting you or someone you know? Let’s explore the causes of this disorder and how best to go about treating it.

What is hypersomnia and how is it caused?

Hypersomnia is exactly this: a tendency to have an unhealthy desire to oversleep. Imagine being so tired that you fall asleep for a good 14 hours (in this case, oversleeping), and wake up feeling as if you had no sleep at all? Now add in an overwhelming, continuous (and compelling) desire to nap. That’s hypersomnia.

So, what causes it? Some of the known causes of hypersomnia include underlying sleep issues (such as insomnia or chronic sleep deprivation), a change in medications, using recreational drugs, or head trauma. Like all sleep disorders, if left untreated, other, more serious, sleep issues can occur.

There are two types of hypersomnia:

  • Primary hypersomnia can occur through an unhealthy lifestyle and consistent sleep deprivation. 
  • Secondary hypersomnia is a more serious condition that can arise with an existing medical condition, such as sleep apnea, Parkinson’s disease, kidney failure, and chronic fatigue syndrome.

What are the symptoms?

The key symptom to note is feeling constantly tired. No matter how much sleep you get, you never feel fully refreshed.

In most cases, hypersomnia sufferers report that they remain in a semi-unconscious state, even when they’ve woken up. Some say that the emotional toll on their mental and physical health means they struggle in family, social, work, or other interactive settings.

Other symptoms include anxiety, irritability, low energy, restlessness, slow thinking and speech, loss of appetite, hallucinations, and forgetfulness. 

What can I do to test for hypersomnia?

We recommend that you book an appointment with your GP to test your alertness. Your GP could send you to a sleep specialist to review the type of symptoms you’re experiencing and the severity of your hypersomnia.

A proper diagnosis will typically include these tests:

1. Keep a sleep diary

A sleep diary will help track your sleeping and waking hours and monitor your sleeping patterns. This will help your specialist understand the severity of your hypersomnia and rule out any other sleep disorders like narcolepsy, which has similar symptoms.

2. Answer an Epworth Sleepiness Scale (ESS) quiz

This is a questionnaire that helps you rate the level and severity of your sudden excessive sleepiness. Usually around 8 questions long, it uses a scoring system to rate your exhaustion levels.

3. Take multiple sleep latency tests

Also known as a ‘daytime nap’ study, this is a standard test used to diagnose narcolepsy and hypersomnia disorders. You’ll be asked to take a monitored nap to measure how quickly you fall asleep, and what type of sleep experience you have.

4. Undergo an overnight polysomnogram

This involves an overnight stay in a sleep clinic where a polysomnogram machine will record your brainwaves, oxygen levels in your blood, heart rate and breathing, as well as eye and leg movements while you sleep. These tests help to narrow down the cause of your hypersomnia.

Can I cure my hypersomnia?

Your lifestyle habits play a major role in treating and alleviating the symptoms of hypersomnia. Specifically, your diet, exercise regime and stimulant intake. Pay attention to what you’re eating, the amount of stress you’re letting into your life, and if you’re balancing your working hours with resting hours.

Sleep deprivation is the gateway to developing other serious conditions such as sleep apnea and insomnia. If your lifestyle is healthy but you’re still battling with extreme fatigue, your doctor could prescribe certain medications to help.

Although not life-threatening, hypersomnia can put a dampener on your quality of life. If you feel like you may be heading down a slippery-slope of sleep deprivation, take note of your current lifestyle and put healthier habits in place.

Living with hypersomnia

Living with hypersomnia can take a serious physical and emotional toll on your overall wellbeing and create a long-term sleep issue. Like all sleep disorders, your lifestyle has an effect on your sleeping health. Make sure you follow a balanced diet, get good exercise, and practise strict sleep hygiene.