THE BLOG
05/02/2014 05:14 pm ET Updated Jul 02, 2014

The Worst Sleep Disorder of Them All

As a kid I used to love watching the G.I. Joe cartoon series, and still can remember one of their catchphrases: "Knowing is half the battle!" Now, over 25 years later, it occurs to me that this quote is relevant to the field of sleep as well.

Researchers estimate that more than 80 percent of people with clinical sleep issues remain undiagnosed, and so it seems that awareness around sleep disorders could use a little boost. With that intention, let's see if we can shed some light on a few things.

Dr. William Dement is known as the father of sleep medicine, and for good reason. He started the world's first sleep clinic at Stanford University in 1970, has worked tirelessly to promote sleep health, and was among the first to draw attention to the fact that sleep is as important, if not more so, than diet and exercise when it comes to well-being. He helped discover REM sleep, defined the stages of sleep, and created the index that sleep doctors use to this day to determine the severity of sleep apnea. But perhaps his most eye-opening contribution to the advancement of sleep health is identifying the granddaddy of all sleep disorders.

Ignorance.

"Ignorance is the worst sleep disorder of them all," writes Dr. Dement in his book The Promise of Sleep. What he means is that if people are unaware of the existence of sleep disorders, it is unlikely that they will seek or receive the help they need to improve their sleep. Part of the problem is that doctors do not receive much training on sleep in medical school. In fact, based on the most recent data available, doctors receive less than 3 hours of formal education on sleep during their 4 years of medical school. Three hours. Unsurprisingly, therefore, they tend not to address the sleep of their patients in their practices - has your doctor asked about your sleep in any detail? If you ask your friends the same question, I'm willing to bet that most of them would say "no."

Which brings us back to G.I. Joe. Knowing, or awareness, is half the battle - and we as patients can take some responsibility for ourselves by knowing the basics. In that spirit, here are some things to consider:

  1. Approximately 70 million Americans have a sleep disorder.
  2. There are over 80 recognized sleep disorders. Apnea, insomnia, and restless legs syndrome are some of the common ones, but there are many others that can interfere with sleep quality.
  3. Well over 50 percent of Type II diabetes patients have a sleep disorder, which may in turn worsen the diabetes.
  4. Sleep disruption may increase the growth of cancer cells.
  5. Fitness trackers, while great for raising awareness, may provide a false sense of security for those with sleep disorders as they are not built to provide diagnoses.
  6. Sleep duration is important, but sleep quality is just as important. What if you get eight hours, but are snoring like a chainsaw, or tossing and turning all night?
  7. Sleep problems impact workplace productivity and safety.
  8. Sleep is directly related to most of your body's major systems, including the immune, metabolic, and endocrine systems.
  9. Most sleep disorders are treatable.

Here's the point. Sleep "hacks," tips and tricks are all well and good. But if you are one of the 70 million Americans (or hundreds of millions of people globally) that has an actual, medically-recognizable sleep disorder, then you're probably going to want to address that with a sleep-savvy physician if you truly want to optimize your sleep.

And congratulations, by the way. Now that you've read this article, the worst sleep disorder of them all is hopefully not an issue for you!

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