What Causes Sleep Disorders?

Approximately 75% of adults, ages 20-60, have been diagnosed with insomnia or another sleep disorder at one time.

What does this statistic mean? Well, it suggests that the majority of adults have grappled with at least one sleep disorder, such as insomnia, restless legs syndrome (RLS), sleep apnea, snoring, or narcolepsy at some point in their lives. It also suggests that if you have a sleep disorder, your days are probably spent feeling mentally confused, overly tired, sleepy, irritable, frustrated, and/or agitated, “achy,” hormonal (i.e., PMS, pregnancy, etc.), unproductive (at school, home or work), and “mentally foggy.” 

The truth is having a sleep disorder, like insomnia, can feel like a never-ending battle – one that can have detrimental effects on your health and well-being, such as depression or anxiety), social withdrawal or isolation, and/or damaged relationships and friendships, frequent callouts from work, low work productivity, constant mood swings, self-doubt or poor self-esteem, daytime grogginess (fatigue), inactivity, a bad attitude, substance abuse or alcoholism, etc. Even accomplishing minor goals can feel like impossible feats. 

The good news is there is a variety of treatments available to help you combat your sleep disorder and get better sleep. But before you can be treated for a sleep disorder, you must determine why you are unable to get quality sleep. In other words, the first step is to discover a possible cause of your acute or chronic sleep issues.

The good news is this article will help you understand the cause of your sleep disorder, so you can seek the proper treatment for it.


What is a Sleep Disorder?

In a nutshell, a sleep disorder is a health condition that occurs when there is a change in your sleep hygiene (i.e., habits or patterns).

Can Sleep Issues Negatively Affect Your Health?


Sleep disorders can adversely affect your health and well-being (i.e., depression, anxiety, hypertension, cognitive function, motivation and productivity, judgment or ability to make wise decisions, immune system function or ability to ward-off viruses, infections, and diseases, etc.), self-esteem, social life, romantic relationships and friendships, and even your quality of life. Sleep deprivation (poor sleep quality) can also negatively affect your ability to safely operate machinery (i.e., cars or work equipment).

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Sleep Disorders?

The signs and symptoms of sleep disorders include extreme daytime grogginess or sleepiness, breathing difficulties or irregularities, involuntary or “sudden” nighttime movements (during sleep), inconsistent sleep/wake cycles, tossing and turning throughout the night, recurrent nightmares and night terrors, restlessness, a racing or overactive mind, and an inability to peacefully falling asleep – and stay asleep throughout the night.

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Are There Different Types of Sleep Disorders?


There are many different types of sleep disorders. Understand that sleep disorders are categorized by their descriptions, causes, and overall effects. They can also be categorized by how they make you feel and how they disrupt your sleep/wake cycles (circadian rhythms). 

The most common sleep disorders are insomnia, narcolepsy, sleep apnea, and restless legs syndrome (RLS):

  • Insomnia – Insomnia prevents or delays your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep for the remainder of the night. 
  • Narcolepsy – Narcolepsy, also referred to as “sleep attacks,” can cause excessive daytime drowsiness or lethargy and muscle weakness. These “sleep attacks” can occur at any time, such as while talking to someone, driving, or walking. 
  • Sleep Apnea – Sleep apnea can trigger irregular or abnormal breathing problems while you slumber. 
  • Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS) – Restless legs syndrome (RLS), also referred to as Willis-Ekbom Disease, is considered a “sleep movement condition.” This sleep disorder not only causes distressing (numbness or pins-and-needles) sensations in your lower limbs, but also an uncontrollable urge to move your legs while in bed.

What Could Be Causing My Sleep Disorder?

A variety of factors can contribute to sleep disorders. But even though the “causes” of sleep disorders can differ, sleep disorders occur when your sleep/wake cycles (circadian rhythms) have been interrupted.

What Factors Can Predispose Me to Sleep Disorders?

Factors that can predispose you to sleep disorders:

  • Physical Ailments (i.e., chronic pain, headaches, muscle aches, gastrointestinal distress – upset stomach, constipation, diarrhea, and/or abdominal pain, restlessness, daytime sleepiness, “brain fog,” etc.)
  • Medical Conditions (i.e., lupus, RLS, fibromyalgia, arthritis, muscle disorders, and sleep apnea)
  • Mental Health Conditions (i.e., depression or anxiety disorders)
  • Environmental Factors (i.e., snoring, bright lights, blue light, stimulating video games, medications like steroids, loud noises, too hot or too cold, too dark, uncomfortable bedding or bed, etc.)

Can Sleep Disorders Be Acute or Chronic?


  • Acute insomnia, also referred to as “short-term” or “temporary” insomnia, may be caused by stress (i.e., a change in living or job situation – i.e., sudden unemployment, the loss or death of a friend, loved one, or pet, a change in location – work or residence, illness, and/or too much light, darkness, noise, pollution, coldness or hotness, etc.). 
  • Chronic insomnia, also referred to a long-term or reoccurring insomnia, is “sleeplessness” that consistently occurs at least three nights a week for at least twelve weeks). Chronic insomnia may be caused by a variety of factors, such as anxiety, depression, and/or chronic stress or pain.

Can Certain Genes Cause Sleep Disorders?


According to the National Organization for Rare Disorders, a group of genes, referred to as the “human leukocyte antigen (HLA) complex,” may play a vital role in regulating your sleep quality (sleep/wake cycles or circadian rhythms). This gene is located on the human chromosome 6.

Could a 3rd Shift Job Trigger a Sleep Disorder?


People, who work a night shift or 3rd shift job, are at risk of developing one or more sleep disorders. Why? Well, primarily because these employees are unable to follow “normal” sleep patterns. In other words, they are unable to lay down and go to sleep when sleepiness creeps up on them. This throws off their sleep/wake cycles (circadian rhythms) possibly triggering a sleep disorder.

I Take A Lot of Medications – Could That Be Causing My Sleep Issues?

It could be…

A variety of medications, such as antidepressants, blood pressure medications, allergy medications, steroids, stimulants, cold and sinus meds – especially decongestants and antihistamines and those that contain caffeine, and headache medications, like Excedrin, can cause sleep issues.

I Am in My Mid-Sixties and Was Recently Diagnosed with a Sleep Disorder – Could My Age Be a Factor?


Sleep disorders tend to be more common as you age. In fact, approximately 43% of adults, 65+, have experienced at least one sleep disorder. Keep in mind, however, that while poor sleep quality may be part of the “aging process,” it could also be a medication side-effect.

Why Does This Happen?

Well, most people experience “changes” as they age, such as:  

  • Activity Level – As most people age, they tend to reduce their activity levels. In other words, they engage in fewer physical and social activities. When you do not get enough activity, it can impact your sleep quality and cause sleep issues. 
  • Sleep Habits – Once you become an older adult, you may begin to notice things you didn’t notice before. In other words, your sleep habits may change. For instance, noises, light, and temperature changes may prevent you from falling asleep or cause you to awaken several times during the night. Note: Many older adults get sleepy earlier in the evening and awaken earlier in the morning. 
  • Health and Well-Being – As people age, it is common for them to urinate more, especially in the middle of the night. Nocturia (frequent urination) or getting up several times to pee can disrupt your sleep and trigger a sleep disorder. Older people are also more at risk of experiencing RLS, sleep apnea, and muscle aches – conditions that can make it harder to fall and stay asleep all night. 
  • Medications – Lastly, certain medications (prescription and OTC) can elevate your risk of insomnia or a drug-induced sleep disorder.

I Have Been Especially Stressed, Anxious and Depressed Lately – Could That Be Triggering My Insomnia or Sleep Disorder?

It could be…

Chronic stress can cause insomnia or another sleep disorder. In fact, high-stress levels can prevent you from getting quality zzz and/or cause you to awaken several times throughout the night. And, if by chance, you fall asleep, stress can lead to a restless night of tossing and turning and nightmares.

A stress/anxiety combo can also lead to health woes, such as “aches and pain,” that interfere with your ability to get sound sleep.

Anxiety symptoms that can cause insomnia or a sleep disorder are:

  • Ruminating or obsessing over past experiences, events, and feelings
  • Becoming overwhelmed by tasks and responsibilities
  • Becoming overstimulated
  • Excessively worrying about or fretting over things that could happen in the future 
  • Being in a state of continuous tension

Keep in mind that silence can also trigger stressful thoughts. In other words, silence can cause you to experience reoccurring thoughts, which can cause you to become anxious about going to sleep. Think of it as a self-fulling prophesy. It is a fear of being unable to fall and stay asleep that prevents you from getting the rest your body needs to properly perform next-day tasks. Thus, this begins a relentless cycle of stress and anxiety – both of which can wreak havoc on your sleep quality. 

Depression and other mood disorders (i.e., bipolar disorder) can cause insomnia or a sleep disorder. In fact, it is common for people, who suffer from mental health conditions to experience sleep issues like insomnia. Why? Because some mental health issues are linked to hormonal changes and mood fluctuations – perfect ingredients for “sleeplessness” or sleep disorders. 

Note: People, who suffer from depression, also have a high risk of experiencing chronic sleep issues or sleep disorders. Conversely, however, researchers have also found that insomnia and other sleep disorders can trigger or aggravate mood disorders like depression or bipolar disorder.

I Recently Entered Menopause – Could My Hormones Be Making Me Restless at Night?

Yes, fluctuating hormone levels (i.e., menopause) may prevent you from getting sound sleep at night.

Some women experience insomnia or another sleep disorder once their menstrual cycles end (for good). In fact, approximately 60% of menopausal women suffer from one or more sleep disorders. Why does this occur? Well, primarily because of lower progesterone levels. Menopausal women produce little-to-no progesterone (the hormone responsible for sustaining a pregnancy) because they are no longer able to become pregnant. 

Low or non-existent progesterone levels can lead to “sleeplessness” or insomnia. Low levels of estrogen can also trigger or worsen sleep disorders. In fact, low estrogen levels can cause hot flashes, excessive perspiration (sweating), headaches, body aches, and/or mood swings – all of which can negatively affect a woman’s ability to get proper sleep.

Can a Too Cold, Hot, Bright, Loud, Quiet, Dark, or Stuffy Sleep Environment Cause Insomnia or Another Sleep Disorder?


An uncomfortable sleep environment (i.e., too cold, hot, bright, loud, quiet, dark, or stuffy) can prevent you from falling and staying asleep throughout the night. Even snoring or grunting partner or child can negatively impact your sleep quality.

Can Certain Foods and Beverages Prevent Me from Getting Quality Sleep?


Some foods and beverages can contribute to insomnia and other sleep disorders. 

These foods and beverages include the following:

  • Alcohol – Alcohol behaves in the body like a sedative. Sedatives can cause you to feel sleepy in the moment but prevent you from falling asleep at bedtime.
  • Caffeine – Caffeine behaves like a stimulant in the body. Caffeine (i.e., milk chocolate, caffeinated sodas, black tea, coffee, etc.) temporarily boosts your energy level. And, because caffeine stimulates your mind and body, too much of it can keep you awake. Keep in mind, that moderate caffeine consumption should not affect your sleep quality, however, it is important to refrain from consuming caffeine too close to bedtime.  
  • Spicy or Heavy Meals – Consuming spicy or heavy meals too close to bedtime can cause bloating, gas, abdominal pain, heartburn, acid indigestion, IBS, and gastrointestinal distress (nausea, constipation, vomiting, upset stomach, and diarrhea), which can interfere with your sleep process (sleep/wake cycles or circadian rhythms) and make it hard for your body to relax long enough to fall asleep.

I am a Restless Sleeper – Could It Be Due to My Asthma?

Most likely..

Asthma symptoms typically include a wide range of symptoms, such as wheezing, breathing difficulties, rapid breathing, chest tightness, and/or coughing – all of which can make getting comfortable enough to fall and stay asleep feel like an impossible feat.

Understand that asthma symptoms typically worsen at night due to a change in airway function. In other words, at night an asthmatic person’s airway may become compressed or narrowed and lead to breathing issues and sleep issues. Keep in mind that some asthma medications can also stimulate the body and cause “sleeplessness.”

Could My Non-Stop Allergies Be Keeping Me Awake?

It is possible…

The truth is allergies can affect your breathing making it hard to sleep. In other words, if you are unable to breathe, it is difficult, if not impossible to relax your mind and body long enough to get quality sleep. Thus, people with respiratory allergies are more likely to develop sleep disorders.

I Have Chronic Pain That is Worse at Night – Could That Be Causing My Insomnia?

Yes, it is a possibility.

Chronic pain can make it hard to fall and stay asleep at night. It can even wake you up several times once you have fallen asleep. When you have chronic pain, you are more likely to experience restlessness, tossing and turning, and “aches and pains” or “soreness.” You are also more likely to worry about or become “fixated” on your pain – so much so that it prevents you from fully relaxing so your mind and body can repair themselves. 

Chronic conditions that can trigger or worsen sleep disorders include the following:

  • Lupus
  • Asthma 
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Recurrent Headaches or Migraines
  • Rheumatoid Arthritis or Arthritic Conditions
  • Muscle or Joint Injuries 
  • Musculoskeletal Conditions
  • Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
  • Back Pain
  • Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBS)

I Am a Junk Food Addict Who Does Not Sleep Well at Night – Could That Be Triggering My Sleep Problem?


Certain foods can cause or exacerbate sleep disorders. 

Consuming large amounts of junk food or consuming junk food (including caffeinate or sugary sodas) late-night can cause nightmares or night terrors. It can also prevent you from “settling down” and falling asleep when it’s time for bed. Junk foods like ice cream, pizza, cookies, cake, candy, and sodas, along with spicy foods, can cause heartburn, IBS, acid reflux, and gastrointestinal issues like nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, bloating, abdominal cramps, upset stomach, and/or constipation – all of which can make it hard to relax and snag some quality zzz.

Can Sleep Disorders Be Prevented?

Yes – in some cases…

There are things you can do to prevent some sleep disorders. It really depends on what is triggering the sleep disorder. Understand, however, that the origins of some sleep disorders may be hard to determine, and as a result, hard to prevent. Also, some sleep disorders arise because of another condition, such as arthritis or asthma, making them almost impossible to prevent.

Furthermore, some medications, especially ones that include caffeine or other stimulants, can cause acute or chronic “sleeplessness.” In this case, the sleep disorder is linked to the medication – and the medication is needed to treat the primary condition (i.e., asthma). So, even though your doctor may try to ward-off drug side-effects like insomnia, by prescribing another medication, there is no guarantee that you will not experience sleep issues or other issues that affect sleep while taking it.

So, Is There Anything I Can Do to Aid My Sleep Disorder Treatment Plan?

Yes, there is.

If you suffer from insomnia or another sleep disorder, you are not alone. And, there are plenty of things you can do to get snag some much-needed rest! In fact, sleep programs, like Somnus Therapy, can provide you with the sleep you crave. What is Somnus Therapy? Well, it is a high-quality, insomnia treatment program designed to restore your sleep health with guided cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT-i).

Get access to 50+ CBT sessions and 100+ sessions of guided sleep meditations created by certified sleep specialists, and access to your own sleep coach. So, if you are looking for a way to aid your sleep disorder treatment plan, try Somnus Therapy. You will not be disappointed!

Over 2,000 users have already beat their insomnia with Somnus Therapy!

“Thanks to Somnus Therapy I now sleep well each night without medication! This was a huge milestone for me – so thank you.”

Sinead Browning

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