Common Sleep Disorders


According to the NHS, as many as one in four people in England snore regularly. (1) Snoring is caused by an obstruction of the soft palate tissue at the back of the throat. When air passes through, it can cause a snorting or rattling noise. It’s more common with age and is usually caused by size and body shape. Weight is one of the main contributors and, therefore, shedding excess fat will usually improve symptoms.

Sleep Apnoea

Obstructive Sleep Apnoea (OSA) is a potentially serious condition, which interrupts normal breathing patterns during sleep. It is caused by lack of muscle tone in the upper airway. Sufferers can be starved of vital oxygen from between 10-25 seconds per event, after which the brain will signal the body to wake up and take in air. If untreated, it can occur hundreds of times per night, leading to daytime fatigue and other serious health problems. According to the Sleep Apnoea Trust Association, there are currently 300,000 people in the UK diagnosed with OSA. (2)


As many as one in three people in the UK will suffer from insomnia on a regular basis. (3) It is described as a difficulty in getting to sleep or staying asleep long enough to wake feeling refreshed. The cause of insomnia can be different for each individual. Stress, age and hormone imbalance are just a few of the triggers.

Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS)

RLS, also known as Willis-Ekbom disease, is thought to affect up to 10 per cent of people living in the UK. (4) It is a neurological disorder, which causes a tingling or itching sensation and unexplained aches in the lower limbs. Sufferers have a strong urge to move the legs to relieve the uncomfortable sensation, which can result in disturbed sleep patterns. The causes are not always clear but have been linked to nutritional deficiencies, pregnancy and kidney failure. Some neurologists believe there could be a link to the way the body handles dopamine. (4)

Sleep Deprivation

Lack of sleep can make us feel grumpy, fatigued and in desperate need of caffeine and/or a sugar fix.

But why do we need so much sleep to function properly? And what are the effects of long-term sleep loss?

The causes of sleep deprivation may result from poor quality or duration of sleep due to difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep, waking up during the night or waking up too early in the morning. These are all types of disorders that can be inflicted by a multitude of environmental triggers, sleep walking, restless sleep partner, children, snoring, sleep apnoea, insomnia, and restless leg syndrome.

Sleep is a vital process for the body to achieve homeostasis. It allows the body time to rest, repair muscle, regulate hormones and consolidate memories. Even the smallest disturbances in sleep can affect memory, judgement and mood.

Sleep deprivation has been linked to weight gain, premature ageing of the skin and it can also kill your sex drive, not to mention it can cause accidents and make you feel depressed.

Long-term exposure to sleep loss can also have more sinister outcomes, which often don’t present themselves for years to come. For example, heart disease and cancer are the two of the most common causes of premature death in the UK and long-term lack of sleep has been implicated in the aetiology of both of these diseases. (6,7)

A 2013 study claims that lack of sleep puts you at the same risk of cardiovascular disease as smoking. (6) Dr Monique Verschuren, Lead Researcher on the paper, says that “the importance of sleep should now be mentioned as an additional way to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease”. The role of insufficient sleep is not clear or straightforward but it is hypothesized that disturbances in glucose metabolism, blood pressure, and the immune system all contribute to disease progression.

The World Health Organization classified sleep disturbance, caused by working night shifts, as a potential cause of cancer. (7) Inflammation and disruption to normal immune function are thought to play a significant role. In addition, melatonin, which is produced during sleep, is an antioxidant and may help to protect against cellular damage. According to a study featuring the BBC’s Dr Michael Mosely, even a reduction of just one hour’s sleep per night can alter the expression of genes associated with inflammation, immunity, diabetes, cancer risk and stress. (8)

The importance of getting a good night’s sleep is clear to see. Prolonged sleep deprivation, caused by sleep disorders, can have a profound negative effect on health and even shorten life expectancy.

So, why are so many of us not achieving a good night sleep? And what are the triggers?


Physical disturbances, medical issues and psychiatric disorders are all common and well-recognised causes of sleep disorders, but what about lifestyle factors? How do they impact our sleep patterns and quality of sleep?

  • Stress: Stress and anxiety are now recognised as a leading cause of insomnia by the NHS. (3)
  • Nutrition: Researchers have found that people who had the most varied diet had the healthiest sleeping patterns. (9)
  • Stimulants: Caffeine and smoking interfere with the body’s circadian rhythm, caffeine by delaying the circadian melatonin rhythm, and smoking by reducing the total sleep time, increasing difficulty falling asleep and maintaining sleep, and by causing smokers to wake up earlier than desired. (10,11)
  • Alcohol: The odd nightcap may help to induce sleep but a 2013 review of over 27 studies found that alcohol reduces REM sleep, which is thought to be the most restorative. (12)
  • Obesity and exercise: Increased body weight is associated with a reduction in quality and length of sleep. Four of the most common sleep disorders (as above) have a link to obesity. Regular exercise has been shown to have a positive effect on the quality of life of people suffering with sleep disorders. (13)
  • Age and gender: According to the Great British Bedtime report, men appear to enjoy better quality sleep than women (30 per cent sleep very well, compared to 22 per cent of women). Also, sleep quality seems to decline with age, with those aged 45-54 appearing to be the most sleep deprived age group. (5)