What is an irregular sleep-wake syndrome?

Going to bed at night and waking up in the morning is what is considered normal for us. But people who suffer from irregular sleep-wake syndrome struggle to structurize their sleep patterns. And this condition is quite common, as research shows.

Those who have this syndrome can get only from one to four hours of sleep at a time. They wake up constantly, thus breaking a continuous night rest into separate bits. Typically, such a person can get the longest continuous sleep only from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m — that’s just four hours of solid rest without interruptions.

Yet, although people with irregular sleep-wake syndrome can’t sleep continuously, they’re getting enough sleep in total. Therefore, they’re not seen as sleep-deprived. Nevertheless, because of spreading the rest over twenty-four hours, such people usually feel more drowsy during the day than those who are getting all their sleep for six to eight hours. Also, those struggling with this issue may have insomnia.

Do you need to get medical help for irregular sleep-wake syndrome?

If sleeping patterns become disrupted for just a while, it’s not considered something that might need medical intervention. We sometimes can experience issues with sleep, and it’s completely normal. But if you experience clear signs that your sleep problems are not going away, and if you try to follow some kind of sleep-wake schedule failing at it, you should see a doctor. They will examine you and see if you have irregular sleep-wake syndrome. But before getting worried that you suffer from this syndrome, think for a bit about any factors that could contribute to the lack of structured sleep.

How is irregular sleep-wake syndrome diagnosed?

First of all, the doctor will ask you about your sleep, your habits, how you get ready for bed, etc. Also, they will ask if you experience insomnia at night or drowsiness during the day. These are the questions you can ask yourself, too, trying to figure out if you have irregular sleep-wake syndrome.

Additionally, the doctor may want you to start a sleep diary and use an actigraph — a small sensor that detects sleep-wake patterns. These tools will help both you and the doctor get a better understanding of your daily schedule regarding rest and activity.

You will need to keep a diary and use an actigraph at least for a week to get a decent amount of data. Then a doctor will study the gathered information and define whether you have an irregular sleep-wake syndrome or not.

How to control irregular sleep-wake syndrome?

It’s not easy to fix this syndrome. The treatment will include therapy and lifestyle shifts, such as the following ones.

  • You’ll need to control for how long you’re exposed to light. That means that you should be exposed to bright light and blue light during the daytime. But during evening and night, you will have to limit your usage of digital devices that produce blue light.
  • Taking melatonin.
  • Structuring the day. It might involve creating a schedule you’ll need to follow, improving your sleep environment. Maybe you need a better bed or blinds that will block street lights at night.
  • Reducing the noise in the room where you sleep.

These activities will help you deal with irregular sleep-wake syndrome. But also, they can help those who just struggle with minor sleep issues.

Circadian rhythms and their impact on sleep

There is a reason why people with irregular sleep-wake syndrome might feel low-energy. We heavily rely on our circadian rhythms — the sleep-wake pattern our bodies are used to. Circadian rhythms govern the way we feel physically and mentally during the day and night. The best example of this system is that we usually feel more sleepy and less energized when the sun goes down while lots of sunshine makes us feel widely awake. Circadian rhythms are our internal clock that controls different processes in the body, including sleep.

When according to circadian rhythms, we have to go to sleep, our body produces melatonin — a hormone that makes us feel sleepy. Normally, it’s produced largely at night during the dark time. And it’s necessary for regulating our sleep-wake patterns.

What results in an irregular sleep-wake syndrome?

The primary reason why irregular sleep-wake syndrome appears is an almost absent circadian rhythm. Since it regulates when we are awake and when we have to rest, the sleep pattern becomes nonexistent.

Studies suggest that people without a set schedule are more likely to develop the irregular sleep-wake syndrome. In this case, their bodies simply can’t establish the circadian rhythm.

Even though age is not seen as one of the risk factors, the chances to start struggling with irregular sleep-wake syndrome increase as we get older. It happens because, with age, we might develop neurological, physical, or psychiatric disorders that may become one of the catalysts for this syndrome.

An irregular work schedule that makes us switch between daytime and nighttime shifts and frequent travel between significantly different time zones also can break our circadian rhythm, thus making us experience symptoms similar to ones associated with the irregular sleep-wake syndrome.