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Sleep Medicine

A lack of sleep can torpedo health, so consider consulting a doctor about persistent sleep problems from insomnia to possible sleep apnea symptoms like snoring.

What is sleep medicine?

Sleep medicine is a specialty area of medicine that focuses on the study, evaluation, diagnosis and treatment of sleep disorders.

Restful sleep is important for many reasons. It recharges the body and provides you the energy necessary to tackle your day. Sleep provides a beneficial boost to your body's metabolism and helps fight off illnesses, keeping your immune system at a healthy and functioning level.

Lack of sleep can compound health problems, ranging from raising blood pressure to raising heart attack risk, and increase the likelihood of a motor vehicle accident.  When outside factors affect your ability to get a full night's rest, you may want to consider consulting a physician.

Clinics and health centers that specialize in sleep disorders provide services to evaluate what may be contributing to a lack of rest. A visit to a facility that specializes in treating sleep disorders will involve assessing your symptoms to better determine their underlying causes. Often this includes a sleep study wherein a patient will spend the night at the sleep clinic and be monitored by doctors and technicians. Testing is usually done in a comfortable room, and may include monitoring for breathing disorders, such as sleep apnea.

Causes of insomnia

Difficulty sleeping can be attributed to many factors, including health conditions ranging from heartburn to diabetes, as well as medications, menopause, anxiety, depression and stress.

Preventive measures to help ensure a more restful night's sleep include abstaining from eating, especially unhealthy foods, drinking caffeinated beverages or alcohol and watching TV or using the computer or other electronic devices too close to bedtime. A lifestyle that supports overall wellness, such as maintaining a proper diet and getting regular exercise, also tends to make it easier to sleep.

Experts say it's important to have proper sleep hygiene. This ranges from making your room dark, cool and comfortable (things to consider when buying a mattress), to not taking work to bed. That's in addition to avoiding bad habits such as drinking caffeinated beverages right before bedtime.

Sleep disorders

Just like any bodily activity, sleep is susceptible to dysfunction. Because these disorders occur when you're asleep, you may not even know you have a problem.

According to research by the National Institutes of Health, there are around 50 to 70 million adults within the United States who suffer from sleep disorders.

Sleep apnea causes periods where you stop breathing, often interrupting deep sleep and signified by snoring.

You can consider narcolepsy the opposite of insomnia, in that it occurs when you're awake. Even after a decent night's sleep, people with narcolepsy can find themselves overly tired and sleepy. They may need naps where they enter deep sleep quickly.

Sleepwalking, also known as somnambulism or noctambulism, usually occurs when someone's brain doesn't disable their muscles while dreaming. Usually, they're in a period of deep sleep and are hard to rouse. They may perform any number of activities with no recollection what they've done. In a similar fashion, some people talk while in deep sleep (technically called somniloquy).

Lack of sleep can also simply result from personal choices that don't make it a priority, and parents should be vigilant about how much rest children should get.

Treatments for sleep disorders

Treatment for sleep disorders should begin with a visit to your primary care physician to first determine if underlying medical issues may be involved. Your doctor can evaluate your condition and, if necessary, refer you to a specialist. If a sleep disorder is suspected, he or she may send you to a sleep clinic for further study.

If your doctor can pinpoint the underlying cause of your sleep disorder, he or she may prescribe medicine to help you sleep. Make sure to ask about all risks and side effects, and whether they are habit-forming. Over-the-counter medications, usually antihistamines, tend to have limited effectiveness over the long-term and can contribute to a high incidence of hangover-like symptoms. Do no use prescription or over-the-counter sleep aids when consuming alcohol or taking other drugs with sedating effects. Older individuals also should be cautious about these drugs because of their slower metabolisms.

Health insurance providers may or may not reimburse the treatment of sleep disorders. Many factors, including a doctor's recommendation, may preclude covered services, so do your homework and explore your options in advance.