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Sleep disorders:
causes, symptoms, treatment

Sleep disorders can be very stressful, as those affected experience a massive drop in performance in their daily lives. To ensure proper treatment, the exact form of sleep disorder should first be diagnosed. Here you can read about the underlying causes and how to live a life without sleep problems.


Many people have problems sleeping – they occur not only in adults, but also in children. In Switzerland, about one in four adults suffers from a sleep disorder. However, not every sleep disorder is the same. Here you can find out what forms there are, what causes them and what helps to alleviate sleep disorders.

To be diagnosed with a sleep disorder, the problems must persist over a longer period of time – more than three to four weeks. Sleep difficulties become so bad that those affected notice a significant drop in performance in their day-to-day lives.
If sleep disorders become chronic, they can have a negative impact on a person’s social and professional environment and cause a great deal of suffering. There are over 80 types of sleep disorders. The symptoms can be grouped as follows:

  1. Insomnia lasts for more than one to three months and includes problems with falling asleep and sleeping through the night, waking early in the morning and poor-quality, restless sleep.
  2. In people with sleep apnoea (a sleep-related breathing disorder), the breathing stops for a short period during sleep.
  3. In the case of hypersomnia of central nervous system origin (e.g. narcolepsy or sleeping sickness), sufferers feel very sleepy during the day, even though they are getting sufficient sleep at night.
  4. Circadian rhythm disorders, also known as sleep-wake cycle disorders, can be caused, for example, by time zone changes due to travel (jet lag), irregular shift work, illness or medication abuse.
  5. Parasomnias are disruptive sleep disorders (e.g. sleepwalking, nightmares, unconscious urination during sleep).
  6. Sleep-related movement disorders are caused by movements, such as in the case of restless legs syndrome, or gnashing of teeth.
  7. Individual symptoms, normal variations, unresolved sleep problems: these include people who naturally need less or more sleep (early or late risers) as well as people who snore or talk in their sleep. From a scientific point of view, these sleep problems are not clearly classifiable as pathological or normal.
  8. Other sleep disorders: there are sleep disorders that cannot be classified into the above categories, for example because they are not sufficiently researched or because they combine different factors of several sleep disorders.

A distinction is made between primary and secondary sleep disorders. Primary sleep disorders are caused, for example, by stress.
Secondary sleep disorders have either an organic or a psychological origin:

  • Psychological illnesses, such as depression or anxiety, almost always lead to sleep disorders.
  • Organic or neurological diseases such as cancer, stroke, epilepsy and rheumatism can cause sleep problems such as insomnia, hypersomnia or circadian rhythm disorders.
  • Certain medicines cause sleep disorders as a side effect (such as antibiotics, some antidepressants, blood pressure medication and chemotherapy).
  • Narcotics (e.g. cannabis, ecstasy, heroin) but also legal drugs (caffeine, alcohol, nicotine) can cause sleep disorders.

In order to determine whether they have a sleep disorder, patients should first consult their GP. The GP will first ask about the patient’s medical history, then he or she will perform various physical examinations.
A blood sample and subsequent evaluation in a laboratory provide information, for example, about possible imbalances in the thyroid hormones that cause sleep disorders.

Heart currents are measured by CG (electrocardiography) and brain currents are measured by EEG (electroencephalogography).
If the above tests do not reveal the cause of the sleep disorders, a visit to a sleep laboratory may be considered. Here, the patient spends a night while sleep specialists analyse their sleep.

If sleep disturbances are suspected, patients should seek medical help to minimise negative health consequences.
It is important to find out what is causing the sleep problems and which treatment is suitable. In addition to a few measures that anyone can take themselves (you can find a few ideas in the “These 11 tips can help” section), sleeping pills or home remedies may also be an option.

Sleeping pills
Sleeping pills can either be used for a short period of time in the case of acute insomnia or if all other measures are ineffective (e.g. changed sleep hygiene or plant-based remedies). As these medicines may lead to habituation and even addiction, it is important to discuss their use with a doctor.

Home remedies
The following medicinal plants (usually in the form of tea) can be considered for sleep problems:

  • Valerian
  • Hops
  • Melissa
  • St. John’s wort
  • Lavender
  • Passion flower

Which plant is best suited depends on the individual sleeping problem. Those affected can get advice from both doctors and pharmacies.

Many people with sleep disorders find that warmth in bed (e.g. in the form of a hot water bottle) or a cup of warm milk with honey help them to sleep. The amino acid tryptophan in milk stimulates the release of the sleep hormone melatonin.

If mental or physical problems are behind the sleep disorder, it is essential to discuss this with a doctor. Psychotherapy may be required if the causes are psychological.

Fatigue, irritability and difficulty concentrating are just some of the problems that patients with sleep disorders experience in their daily lives. Two-thirds of all sleep disorders can be improved without medication.

The following 11 tips can significantly improve sleep habits:

  • Try to go to sleep at the same time every night.
  • Sleep at night, not during the day.
  • Keep your sleeping area cool (preferably around 18 degrees) and well ventilated.
  • Avoid heavy, fatty foods in the evening.
  • Stop consuming caffeine in the early afternoon at the latest.
  • Eat a balanced diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables little meat.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Remove your TV, smartphone, tablet, etc., from your bedroom.
  • Do not smoke or drink alcohol.
  • Avoid looking at the clock at night.
  • Try relaxation techniques such as yoga or autogenic training, as they can help with sleep disorders in the long term.

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