Excessive Daytime Sleepiness – Conditions

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Overview

Excessive daytime sleepiness is defined as difficulty staying awake or alert, or an increased desire to sleep during the day. The feelings of sleepiness may be stronger when you are sedentary, such as while driving or sitting at work. Although it’s normal to feel sleepy once in a while after going short on sleep, it’s considered excessive daytime sleepiness when this happens almost every day for at least three months. 

Excessive daytime sleepiness affects between 10% and 20% of the American population, and research suggests it’s on the rise. The 2020 Sleep in America Poll found that Americans report feeling sleepy an average of three days a week, and experience significant effects on mood and physical health as a result.

Causes

There are many possible causes of excessive daytime sleepiness. One of the most common reasons is a chronic lack of sleep, whether due to long work hours, an irregular schedule, insomnia, or other reasons.

Excessive sleepiness can also be caused by getting fragmented or otherwise poor-quality sleep. Getting up multiple times a night to use the washroom, for example, disrupts the natural progression of the sleep stages and may reduce the proportion of restorative slow-wave sleep. Smoking, not exercising enough, and other lifestyle habits may also interfere with sleep quality and cause daytime sleepiness.

Many people who experience excessive daytime sleepiness don’t appear to have any problems sleeping enough. In these cases, sleepiness may be a sign of an underlying health condition or sleep disorder.

Symptoms

Sleep plays an important role in consolidating memory, restoring the immune system, and other vital processes. As a result, a lack of quality sleep may result in a host of symptoms that you may not immediately connect to sleep.

Even if you don’t consciously feel sleepy, you may be suffering from excessive sleepiness if you’re experiencing any of the following:

  • Trouble staying alert
  • Feelings of irritation
  • Memory problems
  • Trouble focusing
  • Difficulty retaining new concepts
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Slower reaction times
  • Risk-taking behaviors

Being sleepy can have wide-ranging effects on health and daily life. Consequences of daytime sleepiness include:

  • Increased risk of car and work accidents
  • Decreased work productivity or academic performance
  • Worse quality of life
  • Problems regulating mood and emotions
  • Social and relationship problems

Excessive sleepiness may be particularly dangerous for young adults, shift workers, medical staff, and people who drive a lot.

Diagnosis

Correctly diagnosing the underlying cause of excessive sleepiness is important for establishing the best treatment.

During the diagnostic procedure, a doctor may ask questions about a person’s lifestyle habits and any medications that they are taking. The doctor may also ask questions relating to mental health.

In some cases, a doctor may order the following diagnostic tests:

  • Sleep study called polysomnography: This test records a person’s brain waves, oxygen levels, and body movements during sleep to assess their sleep cycle.
  • Electroencephalogram: This noninvasive test records electrical activity in the brain. 

Treatment

The specific treatment for excessive sleepiness will depend entirely on the cause.

Most healthcare professionals will not want to prescribe highly addictive drugs to assist with sleep, and people who receive a prescription for sleep medications should not take them every day.

However, some general lifestyle changes may help people get a better night’s sleep. These include:

  • Eating a healthy, balanced diet
  • Limiting caffeine and alcohol intake
  • Exercising regularly
  • Creating a relaxing sleep environment
  • Taking a warm bath before bedtime
  • Keeping a consistent sleep schedule

When To See A Doctor?

Different factors can contribute to excessive daytime sleepiness. You may have an underlying condition, like sleep apnea or narcolepsy, that’s keeping you from getting the rest you need. Or, your tiredness may be a side effect of medication or lifestyle choices. If your sleepiness is affecting your everyday life, it might be time to talk to a doctor to rule out an underlying cause.


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