Despite the fact that we spend roughly one-third of our lives sleeping (or at least, we should!), the science of sleep has been historically neglected, with the majority of important discoveries relegated to only the 20th century. While the reasons for and functions of sleep have been speculated about for as long as humans have speculated about anything, it wasn’t until the 1920s that we discovered there are differences between brain wave patterns in sleeping and awake brains. But we’ve progressed quickly since then—nowadays we understand a lot about sleep science (though not nearly everything), and if you want professional advice about sleep, sleep disorders, and what you can do to fix them, you can talk with a sleep doctor.
What Does a Sleep Doctor Do?
A sleep doctor is a medical practitioner who has specialized in studying the science of sleep. That means that on top of their medical degree, they’ve spent years on additional training (and residencies) to understand why we sleep, how sleep disorders develop, and how to fix them. Though it’s common to refer to the specialist as a sleep doctor or a sleep specialist, the formal name for somebody who who studies sleep is somnologist, which comes from the root somnus, meaning sleep. The improvements in sleep science over the last 100 years have been vast—if you talked to a doctor in 1951 about your problems sleeping, they would not have been able to tell you about the differences between REM and non-REM sleep—REM hadn’t even been discovered yet! Today, there is a vast wealth of knowledge sleep scientists can tap into to help you get the sleep you deserve.
Why Go To a Sleep Doctor?
Do you find yourself having trouble surrounding your sleep habits? From not being able to fall asleep consistently to an inability to stay awake throughout the day, there are so many things that a sleep doctor can help you understand, and therefore alleviate. According to the Center for Disease Control, more than a third of American adults don’t get enough sleep on a regular basis (do you get 7 to 9 hours of uninterrupted sleep every night? Didn’t think so!). In fact, sleeping less than 7 hours each night is associated with and increased risk of chronic conditions such as heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity. Yikes!
But wait—before you go to a sleep doctor, remember that you should always talk to your general physician first. If you’re exhibiting symptoms of sleep disorders, or even feeling less-than-adequately-rested throughout the day, ask your doctor about it. If your healthcare provider can’t give you an adequate evaluation, they’ll refer you to a sleep doctor or sleep center for an evaluation and sleep study. Sometimes, simple behavioral or lifestyle adjustments can be the cure you need—before you head to a sleep center and strap on all those electrodes, ask yourself, “do I go to bed at a consistent time, take steps to alleviate my snoring problems, and exercise regularly?” If you don’t ask yourself that, don’t worry—your primary care doctor will.
Common Sleep Disorders
A sleep doctor can not only help diagnose, but treat sleep disorders in a way that a standard medical practitioner may not be equipped to. Because some sleep issues can be treated with behavioral changes, it’s important to recognize some of the most common sleep disorders.
Insomnia — Symptoms include difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep. Sure, we all get a terrible night of sleep here and there, but insomniacs suffer from poor sleep chronically. A sleep scientist might approach this with medication or cognitive behavioral therapy.
Sleep Apnea — Commonly associated with bad snorers, speed apnea symptoms include excessive daytime sleepiness and morning headaches. What happens with apnea sufferers is that your breathing is cut off while you sleep, which causes the brain to get a lack of oxygen. Commonly treated with a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine, sleep apnea is not something to leave untreated.
Restless Leg Syndrome — This is the irresistible urge to move your limbs (you know that twitch people do with their leg when they’re sitting for a long time?). Cutting down on alcohol and caffeine can help, as can regular exercise, but a sleep doctor can help determine if you need medication to be prescribed.
Tooth Grinding (Bruxism) — The symptoms include frequent headaches or having a sore jaw when you wake up in the morning, but it can be pretty difficult to recognize this issue unless you have a bedmate. Around 45 million Americans suffer from bruxism, and sometimes the fix is simply cutting out stressors or anxiety-inducers in your life. You can also sometimes alleviate the effects of bruxism by wearing a sleep mouth guard.
What is the Future of Sleep Science
In the 1700s, Jean Jacques d’Ortuous de Marian discovered that living creatures (plants included) have an internal clock which guides their daily rhythms. It wasn’t until 1959 that the term “circadian rhythm” was coined. In 1952 Nathaniel Kleitman discovered Rapid Eye Movement (REM), advancing our understanding of sleep cycles. Massive advancements in our understanding of sleep have occurred over the past century, but there are certainly more to come. According to Charlene Gamaldo, medical director of Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep, “each year Americans are shaving more and more time off of the sleep they get per night… More individuals are doing shift work, and people are distracted in the evening hours by cable TV with 1,000s of channels, computer streaming, binge watching, not to mention our growing dependence on mobile phones and social media.” What does this mean for the future of sleep science? With wearable technology and at-home sleep testing devices becoming not only affordable but more reliable, the future of sleep science is anyone’s guess.
Sleep Doctors Can Help You!
Sleep specialists are trained in the diagnosis, treatment, management, and prevention of sleep disorders and sleep problems. If you suspect that you might need treatment from a sleep doctor, don’t be bashful—consult your primary care doctor and they can point you in the right direction! If you’re sleepy all day, you’re not living life to the fullest. If you’re able to see a sleep doctor about getting a better night’s sleep, why wait for another day? A better night of sleep can mean a better day of your life. Let a sleep doctor help you!