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Sleep it off: how prevalent sleep disorders can be laid to rest

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A leading expert from Fakeeh University Hospital’s new sleep laboratory shares insights and advice on managing increasingly common sleep disorders, such as sleep apnoea and insomnia.

Have you ever found yourself sleeping seven to eight hours a night but waking up still feeling tired? Are fatigue and daytime sleepiness conditions that you can relate to? If the answer to either of these questions is yes, there is a good chance that you are lacking not just in quantity but also quality sleep. You may even be dealing with a sleep disorder.

The simplest definition of a sleep disorder is a case that prevents a person from enjoying high-quality sleep during the night. These are situations where a person often wakes up in the middle of the night, feels restlessness, or just cannot feel ‘rested’ no matter how long they stay in bed. These disorders can sap the energy you bring into each day. More worryingly, failure to treat them can also lead to other health complications like high blood pressure, irregular heart rate, and stroke.

The most common sleep disorders in the UAE are obstructive sleep apnoea (OSA) and insomnia. Sleep apnoea is a serious condition in which a person's breathing is frequently interrupted during sleep. In the UAE, it has an estimated prevalence of approximately 23 per cent in males and 19.5 per cent in females. Sleep apnoea can also affect a person’s ability to safely perform normal daily activities and poses long-term health problems.

Since 2020, sleep has been significantly disrupted by COVID-19. Outside of the usual causes of a bad night’s sleep such as chronic stress, people have dealt with inconsistent schedules, homeschooling, job loss, financial woes, and elevated screen time – all of which can contribute to sleep deprivation. With these pandemic-induced factors taken into consideration, doctors are seeing the increased onset of sleep problems.

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Dr Julio Gomez-Seco, Consultant Pulmonologist and Sleep Respiratory Medicine, Fakeeh University Hospital said: “We have noted increased incidence in the UAE for sleep apnoea, insomnia, and other sleep disturbances, especially due to the pandemic. More people seem to come in reporting fatigue and exhaustion over the past year while expressing the impact of personal challenges and stresses – a phenomenon being addressed as ‘coronasomnia’. At our sleep laboratory, our goal is to better understand and treat these sleep disturbances in each individual.”

The risk of sleep apnoea is also known to increase with weight and obesity. Among people with a body mass index (BMI) of higher than 30 kg/m2, 70 per cent are deemed as high-risk for sleep apnoea. Speaking to the role of weight and obesity in sleep disorders, Dr Gomez-Seco said: “In obese people, fat deposits in the upper respiratory tract narrow the airway, ultimately causing symptoms of sleep apnoea. In the UAE, we face a 34.7 per cent prevalence rate of obesity, making the issue of obstructive sleep apnoea particularly urgent for us. This only emphasises the need for further awareness and education among our patients so they can manage their condition more proactively.”

Sleep disorders can affect anyone and at any age. Whether you’re a student facing pressure during exam periods or an office worker facing stress brought on by multiple projects, we all need to be conscious about our sleep habits and what we can stand to improve. Dr Gomez-Seco shares five tips for managing sleep habits and avoiding any potential disorders:

  1. Have a set sleep schedule – One of the keys to good sleep is establishing a routine, which is why it is important to have a wind-down schedule of 30 to 60 minutes each night before going to bed. Get your body accustomed to sleeping and waking at specific times and you will likely find falling asleep (and getting out of bed in the morning) a little easier. Most smartwatches and smartphones have specific settings that support such a schedule.
  2. Start paying attention to your sleep stages – It’s always good to have a baseline understanding of your everyday sleep pattern. You should be conscious of how restful your sleep is by looking at the different stages of light, deep, and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. This is where it can be useful to refer to a sleep tracking device such as a smartwatch or mobile app. These help you identify your sleep stages each night and better understand your moments of ‘peak’ sleep vs. your more wakeful moments. If you prefer not to wear a device while sleeping, maybe use it once or twice a week on the same days to understand your average.
  3. Reduce your screen time just before bed – All of us, to some extent, are guilty of looking at our phones in bed. Some of us for far too long and right before we shut our eyes to rest. It is recommended to stop using electronic devices for at least 30 minutes before bedtime. If your mind and body associate your bed with sleep, you’ll find it less difficult to drift off. On the other hand, if you spend your time in bed deliberately staying awake, you may pay for it later by being unable to sleep when you want to. Establish a regular pattern of relaxing behaviours, such as reading, for 10 minutes to an hour before bedtime.
  4. Have an active lifestyle – Given the link to obesity, most sleep disorders can be avoided by simply having an active lifestyle. While everyone’s routine can vary, people who generally struggle to fall asleep should consider exercising three-four hours before bedtime. Adding exercise to your daily routine is also another way of ensuring you stick to a steady wind-down schedule, as your body falls into a rhythm.
  5. Save tomorrow’s problems for tomorrow – While this may be the hardest to control, it is crucial to resolve your worries or concerns before bedtime. Stress management is a big part of achieving quality sleep and many people turn to meditation to ease anxiety. Another strategy that could help is to jot down what's on your mind and then set it aside for tomorrow.

While these tips can generally help you mitigate sleep disturbances, they can be hard to practice consistently. What is most important is to be conscious of your nightly sleep habits and quality. On warning signs, Dr Gomez-Seco advised: “If you are getting seven to eight hours of sleep and still feel sleepy, you should discuss this with your physician or consider seeing a sleep physician. Furthermore, despite the sleep medicine community’s recommendation for sleep hours, some individuals may still need more hours to wake up feeling rested.

“At Fakeeh University Hospital, we have a specialised laboratory for sleep disorders, which is carefully prepared to simulate the home atmosphere to provide patients with the ideal conditions of warmth and comfort to encourage sleep. We then use special devices that follow all functional activities of patients as they sleep through the night. Based on the sleep test report, the specialist can then identify the problem more accurately and start the appropriate treatment.”

Fakeeh University Hospital’s Sleep Lab brings together multiple specialists to examine sleep disorders in patients, assessing anatomical causes in ENT, dental, and facial areas, along with cardiovascular risk factors including obesity. Soon, the laboratory will also collaborate with the hospital’s Neurology department to cater to neurological disorders such as parasomnia, narcolepsy, and nocturnal epilepsy.

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