Causes of Excessive Daytime Sleepiness

Posted by Tyler Britton on Sep 11, 2021 2:47:00 PM

Causes of excessive daytime sleepiness - Anchorage Sleep Center

Signs of Sleep Deprivation

Excessive daytime sleepiness is a hallmark sign of sleep deprivation. As adults, we should be getting at least 7 hours of sleep every day. When you don’t get enough sleep, you become sleep deprived.

One of the biggest signs of sleep deprivation is excessive daytime sleepiness. Other common signs of sleep deprivation include:

  • General, abnormal irritability and/or short temper
  • Reduced ability to manage stress
  • Onset/aggravated anxiety and depression
  • Impaired cognitive ability – like chronic brain fog
  • Impaired memory

Living with sleep deprivation is often compared to being intoxicated, as both intoxicated people and people with sleep deprivation perform similarly on cognitive tests.

Sleep Deprivation vs Sleep Attacks

Sleep deprivation is simply not getting enough sleep, leading to symptoms described above. Sleep deprivation is not the same as sleep attacks.

A sleep attack is a sudden onset of extreme sleepiness. Sleep attacks can occur at any time during the day, whether you are in a meeting, driving, or eating lunch.

Sleep attacks feel similar to “hitting your wall” at night, except it will happen during the daytime for no reason. Sleep attacks can be milder and just be a sudden onset of sleepiness. They can also be severe enough to make it difficult to stay awake, causing the victim to immediately seek someplace to rest (or in rarer cases, suddenly fall asleep). In this way, sleep attacks are different than sleep deprivation, though they can be a sign of sleep deprivation.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea as Cause of Excessive Sleepiness

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) is a medical condition and sleeping disorder that causes you to stop breathing for about 20 seconds many times throughout the night. Every time you stop breathing your body has wake you up to force you to start breathing again.

Each stop-start breathing cycles is called an apnea event, and in people with OSA they happen 40-240+ times per night - preventing restful sleep and causing sleep deprivation.

The telltale symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea are [WebMD]:

  • You repeatedly stop breathing throughout night, and rouse waking/gasping
  • You suffer from loud, chronic snoring
  • You wake up exhausted in the morning
  • Excessive daytime sleepiness

There are a number of other common symptoms, but the above symptoms should be enough to have to reach out to a sleep specialist or your doctor.

Risks of sleep apnea

OSA is a serious medical condition and requires intervention

Insomnia as Cause of Excessive Sleepiness

Insomnia can cause extreme and excessive daytime sleepiness, but may also make you unable to actually sleep. Insomnia is a sleep disorder that causes you to:

  • Have a lot of trouble falling asleep
  • Having a lot of trouble staying asleep for more than short periods of time
  • Have trouble sleeping in to a “normal” hour

Insomnia not only causes sleep deprivation that can in turn cause excessive daytime sleepiness, but it’s frustrating.

Insomnia may have no clear underlying cause, though several causes do seem to be thematic in people who deal with insomnia. Stress is one very common cause, for example:

  • Loss of parent, spouse, or child
  • Divorce
  • Stressful job
  • PTSD
  • Chronic financial stress

Pain is also a common cause of insomnia - just consider the following statistics about pain and sleep [2015 Sleep in AmericaTM Poll]:

  • People with chronic pain had an average nightly sleep debt of 42 minutes (i.e. getting 42 minutes less sleep than they should)
  • People with acute pain in the last week had an average sleep debt of 14 minutes
  • 37 percent of people with chronic pain in the last week reported good or very good sleep quality, versus 65% who didn’t have pain
  • 23 percent of people with chronic pain reported being diagnosed with a sleep disorder by a doctor, compared to just 6 percent of pain free people. It’s quite a sobering statistic

Natural biological changes as we get older can also cause insomnia and excessive daytime sleepiness. Namely, it is common for our natural sleep patterns to change in ways that make us get less-restful sleep at night and more tired during the day.

Narcolepsy as Cause of Excessive Sleepiness

Narcolepsy is a sleeping disorder that causes frequent and sometimes uncontrollable desire for sleep – aka sleep attacks. These sleep attacks can feel like excessive daytime sleepiness. They can also cause someone struggling with narcolepsy to have irregular sleep patterns that lead to sleep deprivation and chronic daytime sleepiness. For example, someone suffering from narcolepsy may end up sleeping several times during the day and then having trouble sleeping at night.

Hallmark symptoms of narcolepsy are:

  • Cataplexy
  • Sleep attacks
  • Daytime sleepiness
  • Sleep paralysis

Shift Work Sleep Disorder

Do you work hours outside of the typical 8-5 work hours? Or do you work many days on and then many days off? If so, then you are like millions of Americans who are considered shift workers.

Alaska in particular has many shift workers because of our infrastructure (aviation, oil and gas, fishing) and long summers/short winters.

Common types of shift work occupations in Alaska include:

  • Pilots
  • Construction workers
  • Workers on the Slope
  • Police workers
  • Doctors and nurses
  • Firefighters
  • Taxi/Lyft/Uber drivers
  • Customer service
  • Retail

While these provide steady jobs for Alaskans, they can also lead something called shift work sleeping disorder which is where you develop irregular sleep patterns and sleep deprivation due to your shift work. One of the primary symptoms is being excessively tired during the day because of working irregular hours.

Non Sleep Disorder Causes

Common medical conditions that lead to less sleep are:

  • PTSD
  • ADHD
  • Depression
  • Surgery and operations
  • Allergies
  • Arthritis
  • Fibromyalgia
  • The medications used to treat disease can also cause sleep problems

Other diseases may also affect sleep depending on how symptoms present in your body.

Any of the following lifestyle choices will hurt your chances at getting a full night’s rest:

  • Drinking too much coffee throughout the day
  • Drinking coffee to late in the day
  • Drinking alcohol before bed
  • Using electronics and screens before bed (blue light inhibits sleep)
  • Foregoing sleep in order to play video games, party, etc.
  • Keeping a loud, messy, or lit room
  • Skimping on good sheets, pillows, or mattress

Here in Alaska, our lifestyle choices have to be particularly geared for sleep because the extreme lighting conditions in the summer and winter can greatly affect our ability to sleep well.

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Topics: Chronic fatigue

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