8 Things These Sleep Disorders Could Be Saying About Your Health

Updated: Aug. 24, 2020

Difficulty with sleep sometimes means more than restless nights and tired days. Michael Breus, PhD, a.k.a. The Sleep Doctor, discusses common sleep issues and the health conditions they can signal.

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Night sweats

Wondering why you’re sweating during sleep? Here are seven possibilities. Night sweats can be a sign of several health conditions, ranging from mild to serious. Occasional night sweats can be a symptom of stress and anxiety or even a reaction to a very active dream or nightmare. Hormonal imbalances in the body can result in sweating at night, as can gastrointestinal reflux disease, or GERD. Or it might be your body’s way of alerting you to an infection. And night sweats can be a symptom of some cancers, including lymphoma and leukemia. Or your room may just be too hot.

Don’t overlook the temperature of your sleep environment. (Here are some simple ways to keep your bedroom comfortable.) If you’re sleeping in a cool environment and still experiencing night sweats routinely, talk about this symptom with your doctor.

I just need to rest
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Snorting or gasping

Snoring is more than an annoyance for sleepers and their bed partners: It is also a sign of sleep-disordered breathing. Even if your noisy breathing doesn’t wake you, it can create micro-arousals—very brief awakenings—that can result in less-than-refreshing sleep. Snoring affects approximately 90 million adults at least occasionally, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Chronic snoring that is loud, and might be accompanied by gasping or snorting, may be an indication of obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). It’s important to talk with your physician about this kind of sleep-disordered breathing. OSA is an under-diagnosed sleep disorder that, left untreated, raises risks for cardiovascular disease and metabolic conditions including type 2 diabetes. Changes to lifestyle including losing weight and quitting smoking can help, or check out these other remedies.

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Kicking and thrashing during sleep

If you’re lashing out physically during sleep, it may be a sign of REM behavior disorder. During normal REM sleep, the body’s major muscle groups are paralyzed, a state known as REM atonia. REM sleep is an active time for dreaming, and this temporarily paralysis helps protect you—and anyone in bed with you—from acting out in reaction to your dreams. In people with REM behavior disorder, that paralysis doesn’t kick in, leaving the sleeper free to move about during dreaming. This often leads to kicking, thrashing, punching, and jumping out of bed, as well as screaming and shouting. REM behavior disorder poses physical risks to both sleepers and their bed partners. Any disruptive sleep movements or injury and accidents during sleep warrant a consultation with your doctor. REM behavior disorder is treated with medication and by creating safer sleep environments.

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Morning headache

I recently had a patient come to me after a few weeks of waking nearly every morning to a dull, pounding headache. Not surprisingly, she was frustrated and distressed: Waking with a throbbing headache is a painful way to start the day. Morning headaches can be a sign of sleep disorders, including obstructive sleep apnea and insomnia. They’re also a common response to drinking too much alcohol. Especially when routine, morning headaches can be a sign of high blood pressure. Chronic morning head pain may also signal depression or anxiety disorders, according to research. In my patient’s case, we determined her headaches were the result of neck strain. We found her the right pillow for her sleep position, and her morning headaches soon faded. Your sleep environment can make all the difference to your nightly rest: Here are some ways to make your bedroom sleep friendly.

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Uncomfortable leg sensations

Do you ever experience creeping, crawling feelings in your legs? They’re most likely to happen in the evenings, when you’re relaxing on the couch, or stretched out in bed attempting to fall asleep. These irritating tingling sensations—accompanied by a powerful urge to move your legs in order to shake off the feeling—are hallmark symptoms of restless leg disorder, or RLS. This under-diagnosed sleep disorder affects between 7 to 10 percent of the U.S. population. Women tend to experience restless leg disorder, or RLS, more often than men. Untreated, it can cause disrupted nighttime sleep and significant daytime fatigue. Medications and lifestyle changes—including reducing alcohol consumption and increasing moderate exercise—are often used reduce RLS symptoms. One way to increase the likelihood you’ll make it to the gym, according to research? Focus on the health benefits associated with your workout—and that includes benefits to sleep!

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Eating and drinking in the night

These behaviors are a sign of sleep eating disorder, a parasomnia characterized by episodes of binge eating and drinking after waking from sleep. People with this sleep-eating disorder tend to rise from bed almost every night to consume food, often quickly and often in large amounts. During these episodes, you aren’t fully awake, but in a state of consciousness that is a mix of sleep and wakefulness, not unlike sleepwalking. You may remember the episodes, or have a hazy recollection—or no recollection at all. Sleep-eating disorder can be a dangerous sleep condition—you can be injured trying to prepare food, unknowingly consume food to which you’re allergic, or ingest substances that are toxic. This condition also contributes to weight gain and health problems associated with obesity. If you experience these night-eating episodes, it’s important to talk about them with your doctor. Here are some ways to fight obesity that might surprise you.

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Waking up frequently to use the bathroom

We all occasionally wake in the night needing to use the bathroom. As we age, these nighttime bathroom trips can become more common, and can be reduced by limiting how much liquid you consume in the evenings before bedtime. If you’re getting up to go more than two times a night on a routine basis, it could be a signal of a health condition to be addressed with your physician. Frequent urination at night can be a sign of an enlarged prostate. It’s also a symptom of diabetes, often accompanied by an unusual thirst. Here are some silent symptoms of diabetes you might have missed.

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Waking and not being able to move or speak

“I felt totally trapped in my body. It was terrifying.” That’s how a patient described her experience with sleep paralysis. She’s not alone. Sleep paralysis can be deeply frightening, especially the first time it happens. You’re awake, but unable to move your body or open your mouth to speak, for anywhere from a few seconds to a couple of minutes. Sleep paralysis occurs when you wake while still in REM sleep—a stage when the body’s major muscle groups are temporarily paralyzed. It can be triggered by a number of causes, including sleep deprivation and the sleep disorders obstructive sleep apnea and narcolepsy. Sleep paralysis is also more common in people with high levels of stress and mental health conditions, including post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and panic disorder. Read more about what it’s like to experience this scary sleep phenomenon.