What your sleeping habits say about your health – and how to fix it

Woman sleeping - Adam Kuylenstierna
Woman sleeping - Adam Kuylenstierna

A new study suggests that getting frequent nightmares in your otherwise healthy middle-age may be a sign that you are at higher risk of developing dementia. But before you start having nightmares about your nightmares, there is good news. “Scientists are currently developing treatments that can slow cognitive decline in people who have a high risk of developing dementia but do not yet show any characteristic symptoms of the disease,” says the study’s author Dr Abidemi Otaiku, of the University of Birmingham's Centre for Human Brain Health.

In fact, prazosin, a drug already prescribed to treat nightmares, has been shown to decrease the build-up of abnormal proteins linked to Alzheimer’s disease. “[So], identifying very early indicators of dementia risk, such as frequent bad dreams and nightmares, could help contribute towards dementia prevention strategies,” says Otaiku.

Nor is this the only deduction that can be made from the quality of our sleep. After all, we spend a third of our lives slumbering. Those hours can tell us a surprising amount about our health and how to fix it, if only we wake up to the signs…

Never not napping?

Some of us stop for a siesta as a matter of course. But if you find yourself suddenly grinding to a halt and needing a snooze, your body might be trying to tell you something.

“The evidence from a representative sample of the British population suggests that daytime napping is associated with increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes and respiratory conditions,” says Francesco Cappuccio, professor of cardiovascular medicine and epidemiology at the University of Warwick, where he founded the Sleep, Health and Society Programme.

Daytime naps of this nature are a symptom, rather than a cause, of ill health. “The cause would be short and poor sleep at night, a strong risk factor for numerous chronic conditions, like obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes,” Cappuccio explains. A pre-emptive check-up might be in order.

When snoring is more than boring

“Forty-two per cent of people who snore, or whose partner snores, have not heard of OSA and would not discuss these symptoms with their GP,” says Cappuccio. Yet OSA – or obstructive sleep apnea – is a treatable condition that affects an estimated 1.5 million adults in the UK. Those who are overweight, have diabetes or suffer from high blood pressure are more likely to develop it.

The sleep problem causes your airway to narrow or collapse during sleep, explains Cappuccio, so: “the brain, detecting low blood oxygen levels, sends signals that cause the person to wake up, restoring normal breathing.” Snoring aside, symptoms include decreased alertness, nocturia (that’s getting up for the loo in the night), morning headaches and even sexual dysfunction.

Treatment comes in the form of a Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (or CPAP) machine. The user wears a mask at night. Connected to the small machine, it provides gentle, steady air pressure that keeps the airway open. Sexy, it is not. But effective? Research points to benefits including better alertness, concentration, mental and even, perhaps, heart health.

Keeping your partner up at night (and not in a good way)?

Restless leg syndrome – or Willis-Ekbom disease – is a common nervous-system disorder that manifests as an irresistible urge to move your legs and which is often classified as a sleep disorder, since these urges tend to get stronger at night. Sadly, its symptoms tend to worsen with age.

Sometimes, the syndrome is caused by an underlying condition. Pregnant women, for instance, are three times more likely to suffer, believed to be down to family history or hormonal changes, or vitamin D or calcium deficiency. It can also be triggered by kidney failure or iron deficiency. If the latter is causing your squirming, iron supplements might be prescribed.

More commonly though, simple lifestyle changes such as the ten Cappuccio recommends below can help.  More restful and restorative sleep will follow.  For you and for your long-suffering partner.

Suddenly a lazy-bones?

“There are many reasons for having one or more nights when you don’t want to get up in the morning,” says Cappuccio. “If these are isolated episodes do not worry, you’ll recover and get on with your life.”

If, on the other hand, longer lie-ins are becoming routine, and are interfering with your daily life, then talk to your GP. “You may have underlying conditions making you feel tired,” he says. “The commonest may include anaemia, an underactive thyroid, or early signs of depression, just to name a few.”

“A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor's book,” as the old Irish proverb goes. But sometimes, it seems, the latter is also one of his most useful diagnostic tools.