Sleep Escaping You? There May Be a Medical Reason.

Caesar Djavaherian, MD, MS, FACEP
June 23, 2021
3.5 mins

Sleep is a key factor in good health and overall well-being — it has benefits for the whole body, affecting our physical and mental functioning, our immune system, our metabolism, and even our risk of developing chronic health conditions. The right amount of sleep varies from person to person, but most adults need between seven and nine hours a night.

For many people, sleep disorders disturb this process. Insomnia, or the inability to fall or stay asleep, is a very common health complaint — common causes of insomnia include stress, lifestyle factors, and irregular sleep schedules. 

If you’re having a hard time getting a good night’s sleep, lifestyle changes such as cutting down on caffeine and sticking to a sleep schedule may help (read more sleep tips). But some sleep troubles may indicate a more serious problem that you should discuss with a healthcare provider. 

Medical Causes of Poor Sleep

+ Sleep apnea

Breathing disorders such as sleep apnea are common barriers to good sleep. There are two types of sleep apnea: One (the more common of the two) is caused by a blockage in the airway — typically the soft tissue in the back of the throat collapsing during sleep; this is called obstructive sleep apnea. 

In people with central sleep apnea, the brain’s respiratory control center is not stable and fails to signal the muscles that control breathing. 

Left untreated, either type of sleep apnea can lead to serious complications such as heart failure or even a stroke. 

Anyone can develop sleep apnea, but common risk factors include being a cisgender man, being over the age of 40, being overweight, having a large tongue, and having a deviated septum or other obstructions in the nasal airways. 

If you have trouble breathing while asleep, your healthcare provider may recommend lifestyle changes (such as losing weight), a medical device such as a CPAP machine, or surgery.

+ Heartburn

Heartburn is a common occurrence for many people; it happens when stomach acid makes its way into the esophagus, causing a burning pain in the chest or upper stomach. Heartburn often happens after you’ve eaten. It can also happen when you’re lying down in bed at night. The food you eat, when you eat the food, what you drink, your weight, and pregnancy can all contribute to heartburn. Frequent heartburn that interrupts daily life, including sleep habits, is classified as gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD. Your healthcare provider may recommend medication that suppresses stomach acid, as well as altering your diet and avoiding certain foods in the evening.

+ Frequent Urination 

Nocturia, or an excessively frequent need to urinate during the night, is a symptom of many medical conditions that will require a discussion with your doctor. Common causes include urinary tract infections, bladder infections, infections or enlargement of the prostate, and diabetes. Medications you’re taking and lifestyle factors such as how much you’re drinking during the day can also cause nocturia. 

+ Other Concerns

An inability to get a good night’s sleep might be caused by other factors that a healthcare provider may be able to help you manage: 

     • Stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues can cause interruptions in sleep. (This can sometimes lead to patients drinking alcohol, which they assume will help them sleep — but alcohol can in fact cause interrupted or restless sleep that worsens daytime stressors.)

     • Research shows that some symptoms of diabetes, such as a frequent need to urinate or low blood sugar, can promote restlessness and make it hard for someone to fall and stay asleep. Diabetes can also damage the nerves, which can cause both a lack of sleep and muscle pain. 

     • Thyroid conditions such as hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism can influence hormones and cause poor sleep.

     • Neurological disorders such as multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease can disturb sleep. 

Not being able to sleep can have a huge negative affect on a person’s quality of life. If you're concerned about having difficulty sleeping, schedule an appointment or just walk-in to your nearest location to discuss your symptoms.

Carbon Health’s medical content is reviewed and approved by healthcare professionals before it is published, but it is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Talk to your healthcare provider about questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition, and before making changes to your healthcare routine.

Caesar Djavaherian, MD, MS, FACEP

As Carbon Health’s Chief Innovation Officer, Caesar Djavaherian, MD, MS, FACEP, guides clinical innovation through product development, service expansion, and partnerships with transformative companies working to improve the healthcare ecosystem. He is an emergency medicine physician, a former high school teacher, and a reformed academic researcher. Caesar co-founded Direct Urgent Care to deliver technology-enabled urgent care throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. He has practiced at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, the University Hospital of Columbia, and Weill Cornell Medicine. In his spare time, Caesar advises healthcare startups, cheers on the Warriors, tries various HIIT workouts, and daydreams about what the future of health will look like.