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Sleep Disorders

Lack of sleep symptoms

09/23/2005

Question:

For all my life, whenever I sleep poorly or have very little sleep, I feel slightly sick and nauseous, including diarrhea. Are you by any chance aware of a link between lack of sleep/poor quality sleep and those symptoms and the exact cause? Thank you

Answer:

Most everyone recognizes that after a night of poor sleep they do not feel at their best. Typical symptoms of an acute lack of good sleep include fatigue, sleepiness, headaches, difficulty concentrating and irritability. These symptoms can result strained social relationships, poor job performance, and increased accident rates. As a result, there is an increasing awareness in both the medical community and the lay public as to the importance of obtaining a good night's sleep on a regular basis.

In your question you ask specifically about gastrointestinal symptoms (nausea and diarrhea) related to poor or insufficient sleep. While nausea can sometimes be experienced as part of a general sense of not feeling well, why these symptoms are such a prominent feature of your complaints is not readily obvious. However, there are some potential factors that should be considered and whether or not they apply to you will depend upon your specific clinical history.

Stress is common cause of insomnia and can have a wide range of symptoms associated with it. If you are not sleeping well because you are under a significant amount of stress, the chemicals released by the body during these times could be contributing to nausea and diarrhea as a part of the stress response. Other factors that may play a role in intermittently poor sleep followed by gastrointestinal symptoms include the ingestion of foods that are upsetting to your gastrointestinal tract as well as certain substances (such as large amounts of caffeine) and some medications (such as theophylline).

Intermittent changes in your life style that affect your circadian rhythm can place your body's internal clock out of synchrony with your environment and result in some gastrointestinal complaints. Jet lag is a classic example of this phenomena and nausea is a frequent complaint in those who suffer from Jet lag.  Recent studies have also found that sleep disruption can impair the secretion of certain proteins that play a role in protecting the lining of the stomach. Whether a reduction in these proteins can lead to the symptoms you describe is unknown at this time. You also need to consider the possibility of a gastrointestinal illness as a cause of sleep disruption and not the other way around (as assumed above). Individuals who suffer form reflux disease (heartburn) and irritable bowel syndrome frequently experience poor and interrupted sleep. Treatment of the underlying gastrointestinal illness then leads to improved sleep.

You should discuss this issue with your primary care physician. Specific factors in your history will be useful in determining how best to further evaluate and treat your problems. Referral to a Sleep Specialist in your area may also be helpful. If you would like further information about sleep disorders or sleep itself, I recommend the webiste of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. In addition to information about sleep medicine, the website also contains a list of accredited Sleep Centers and may help you to locate one nearest you. Good Luck!

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Response by:

Dennis   Auckley, MD Dennis Auckley, MD
Associate Professor of Medicine
School of Medicine
Case Western Reserve University