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What are the Causes of Excessive Sleepiness?

By Lisa Hernandez
Updated May 17, 2024
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Excessive sleepiness during waking hours can be caused by a variety of factors. Certain habits that include consuming alcohol, nicotine or caffeine can contribute to difficulty sleeping at night, leading to sleepiness during the day. Lack of physical exertion, obesity, depression and some medications can also inhibit nighttime sleep. About 20 percent of adults have a significant level of sleepiness that affects their daily routines. The causes of this debilitating sleepiness can include sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome or narcolepsy.

Sleep apnea is marked by abnormal breathing during one’s sleep. This abnormal breathing can cause loud snoring and often results in gasping for air when there are long pauses in breathing, from 10-60 seconds. An individual who has sleep apnea might not even be aware of these difficulties in his or her breathing patterns but will experience excessive sleepiness during the daytime. The reduction in breathing caused by sleep apnea can lead to heart and lung damage, diabetes and depression.

Treatment for sleep apnea can include medication, weight loss or surgery. Therapy might also involve continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy. CPAP therapy utilizes a mask worn during sleep that supplies continuous airflow to prevent the airways from becoming obstructed.

Another sleep disorder that often deprives one of adequate rest at night is restless leg syndrome. This condition causes unpleasant sensations in the legs, leading to an uncontrollable urge to move them during sleep. Episodes of leg movement can occur at 20- to 30-second intervals during the night, making restful sleep very challenging and leading to excessive sleepiness during the day. Successful treatment for restless leg syndrome includes doctor-recommended vitamin supplementation, a healthy diet, exercise, medication and avoiding alcohol, caffeine and nicotine.

Narcolepsy is another disorder that can cause excessive sleepiness during waking hours. It can lead to periods of extreme drowsiness and can cause involuntary napping, typically referred to as a sleep attack. Narcolepsy is associated with the dreaming period of deep sleep referred to as rapid eye movement (REM).

A serious condition that often accompanies narcolepsy is called cataplexy, which is a sudden loss of muscle control. The loss of muscle control can vary widely from a slight weak feeling to paralysis. Treatments for narcolepsy can include medication, proper diet, regular exercise and scheduled naps during the day.

An individual who is troubled with bouts of excessive sleepiness affecting his or her day-to-day activities might want to discuss the concern with a physician. A physician might use a variety of tests to evaluate excessive sleepiness. These tests can include a physical and mental health exam; a polysomnogram, which measures various sleep related activities; an actigraphy, a test that measures sleep-wake patterns; or the Epworth Sleepiness Scale, which is a test consisting of questions that measure daytime sleepiness factors.

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