What causes sleep-wake disorder?

November 11, 2020 4 mins read
What causes sleep-wake disorder?

Ever heard of the sleep-wake cycle? Think of it as your 24-hour daily sleep pattern broken up into two parts. There’s the standard 16 hours of being awake and the 8-hour sleep period.

When this sleeping pattern is disrupted, it can cause a sleep-wake disorder. So let’s get to it and explore the symptoms of a disrupted sleep-wake cycle, and unpack everything you need to know to get your sleep schedule back on track.

What is the sleep-wake cycle?

Your body has a circadian rhythm which is controlled by your body clock. Imagine a headquarters governing all the functions within your body, including your sleep-wake cycle.

The suprachiasmatic nucleus of the hypothalamus (headquarters) is situated in the brain and sends out hormones to regulate when you should fall asleep at night and wake up in the morning.

Types of sleep-wake disorders

Out of the six main sleep-wake disorders, the most common are circumstantial: jet lag disorder and shift work disorder. The other four are related to abnormalities in the circadian rhythm.

Let’s look at how these sleep-wake disorders differ and how they affect your sleep-wake cycle:

Jet lag disorder

Traveling across time zones can wreak havoc on your body clock. You ‘lose’ time flying west, but ‘gain’ time when flying east. This causes either excessive sleepiness or the inability to fall asleep easily, depending on what time it is back home (versus the time it is in your destination). Jet lag disorder is usually temporary (around 48 hours) as your body clock settles into the new time zone.

Shift work disorder

If you’re a shift worker, then your schedule can disrupt your regular sleep-wake cycle. You’ll feel sleepy during the day and alert at night or vice versa, depending on which routine you follow for work. The symptoms of shift work disorder last for as long as the shift routine you’re on.

Delayed sleep-wake phase disorder

With this disorder, sleep is delayed by two hours or more beyond your standard bedtime. It is biological; for example, in puberty, teenagers may experience delays in falling asleep as their sleep-wake cycle shifts. This can also make it difficult to wake up in the morning.

Advanced sleep-wake phase disorder

When you have an “early bird” circadian rhythm, you favor early bedtimes and early wake-up times. Because they wake up much earlier than those who go to sleep later, people with advanced sleep-wake disorder tend to wake up between 2am, and 5am, and complain of afternoon sleepiness.

Non-24-hour sleep-wake rhythm disorder

When your biological clock doesn’t sync with the standard 24-hour sleep-wake cycle (16 hours awake, 8 hours asleep), it can lead to an erratic sleep schedule known as non-24-hour sleep-wake rhythm disorder. It commonly affects people who are visually impaired, although sometimes, people with vision can get it.

Irregular sleep-wake rhythm disorder

This circadian rhythm sleep disorder leads to sleeping at any time in the night, naps throughout the day and irregular sleeping hours. The sleep pattern is fractured into shorter periods of sleep. So you may sleep on and off in a day, just like infants. When the total number of hours of sleep is counted, it can be equal to a regular 7 to 9 hour period.

Causes of sleep-wake disorders

Your circadian rhythm takes its cues from natural light. When it’s light outside, it’s time to be awake. When it’s dark, it’s time to sleep. When you have a sleep-wake disorder, it is because your natural sleep-wake cycle is out of tune with your environment, due to circumstances like shift work. Sometimes your biological clock can be out of sync due to medication that you’re taking, or other sleep disorders, like insomnia.

To help get your sleep patterns back into shape, you can consider taking supplements to promote sleep or to stay alert. For instance, melatonin can be taken orally to promote sleep at the correct time of day or night (depending on your circumstances). Other medication, prescribed by a sleep specialist can also help regulate your sleep cycle so you can feel more refreshed, rested and alert to show up as your best self.

And lastly, don’t underestimate the power of good sleep hygiene, no matter the time of day or night. Sleep in a dark (as dark as possible) and well-ventilated room, avoid screen time and follow a relaxing pre-bed routine to bring on those restorative z’s.