Clear Signs Your Patients Aren’t Sleeping Enough (and How You Can Help)

March 8, 2022

When does a bad mood or puffy eyes mean more than just having a bad day? When a good night’s sleep seems beyond reach.

Around 30 percent of adults don’t sleep well at night. Yet most people don’t recognize the impact sleep habits have on their physical and emotional health.

Keep in mind that your patient won’t likely identify a connection between their negative behavior and a lack of sleep. It will be up to the dentist to see how these influencers impact healthy sleep habits. Although many signs of a sleep disorder are emotional and subjective, a lack of quality sleep has a visible, physical impact as well.

Much like a healthy diet and regular exercise support better overall health, maintaining a regular sleep routine also contributes to better brain function. Research shows that sleep helps the body rebuild tissue and remove toxins that build up in the brain during the day. Without a healthy sleep routine, we increase the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, depression, moodiness, lower disease resistance, and weight gain.

Whether your patient suffers from temporary physical challenges such as memory loss or more permanent conditions like hair loss, let’s talk about some of the more common signs that your patient isn’t getting enough sleep and what dentists can do to support them.

Mental and Emotional Signs of a Sleep Disorder

The front office team can tell you which patients are more demanding and difficult than others. Could this behavior be a sign of something more going on?

Easily Distracted

A recent experiment based on research published in the Journal of Health Psychology assessed the daytime effects of chronic sleep disorders on common cognitive processes, such as controlling distractions. Participants who suffer from insomnia engaged in a series of attention tests to measure their core attention mechanism, the brain process that allows people to focus on a task and ignore distractions. As suspected, participants with insomnia “found it harder to focus on the task and ignore distractions compared with those in the control group who slept well.”

Easily Frustrated

Research has found that losing as little as two hours of sleep each night can make people angrier in frustrating situations. This pioneering study identified a more defined link between sleep deprivation and anger.

In the study, researchers rated the participants’ reactions to different products while listening to brown noise, such as the sound of spraying water, and white noise, similar to a static signal. By creating uncomfortable conditions, the research team could measure how the controlled sound environment provoked anger.

“In general, anger was substantially higher for those who were sleep restricted,” said researcher Zlatan Krizan, professor of psychology. “We manipulated how annoying the noise was during the task and as expected, people reported more anger when the noise was more unpleasant.” Krizan added that when sleep was restricted, people reported even more anger, regardless of the noise.

“Despite typical tendencies to get somewhat used to irritating conditions — an uncomfortable shirt or a barking dog — sleep-restricted individuals actually showed a trend toward increased anger and distress, essentially reversing their ability to adapt to frustrating conditions over time. No one has shown this before,” Krizan said.

Taking into consideration the longevity of the dentist’s relationship with the patient, they can see signs of mental distress as an opportunity to discuss how the patient’s life situation and stressors could impact the patient’s sleep health. Showing concern is the foundation on which to build trust and share options for relief from mental stress as well as physical conditions.

Physical Signs of a Sleep Disorder

In some cases, a patient’s frustration is triggered by physical changes, which then exacerbates the negative behaviors. During the past decade, studies have exposed the seriousness of sleep loss on overall health. We know that sleep loss contributes to diabetes, dementia, heart disease, stroke, obesity, compromised immune defense, depression, alcohol abuse, and ADHD in both children and adults.

But it’s likely that an annual check-up won’t show definitive signs of those symptoms. What a dentist will see, however, are signs of weight gain, skin conditions, adult acne, and hair loss. While the onset of those conditions isn’t exclusive to a sleep disorder, the patient may express concerns about physical changes that seem beyond the patient’s control.

Unexplained Weight Gain

As a dentist, you have firsthand knowledge of a patient’s poor eating habits. But sometimes it’s not just what a patient eats but when they eat it that contributes to poor sleeping habits. Studies at the Mayo Clinic show a parallel between sleep deprivation and negative changes in one’s metabolism.

“In adults, sleeping four hours a night, compared with 10 hours a night, appears to increase hunger and appetite — in particular for calorie-dense foods high in carbohydrates,” says Katherine Zeratsky, RD, LD. “Observational studies also suggest a link between sleep restriction and obesity. Other studies have found similar patterns in children and adolescents.”

Unhealthy Skin Complexion

In some cases, a prolonged sleep disorder is easy to spot; it’s written all over your patient’s face. Dark circles, skin puffiness, and acne breakouts are all common signs of sleep deprivation. “When we sleep our skin repairs and renews itself,” says Kirsti Shuba, cofounder of Katherine Daniels, a skincare company. “However, without enough sleep the repair process is slowed and toxins and fluids are not drained correctly, meaning puffiness (especially around the eyes) and the GAG synthesis (production of collagen, elastin, hyaluronic acid etc) do not work to their full capacity.”

Maintaining a regular sleep schedule is essential to countering the negative effects of stress and pollution. According to experts, sleep is your body’s time for cortisol levels to drop, thus allowing for essential cellular regeneration and blood cleansing.

Hair Loss

Your patient may express concern about thinning hair or hair loss. Experts believe the lack of sleep contributes to higher stress levels. Studies show that the body experiences numerous sleep cycles, which promote stem cell activity that encourages hair growth.

Research has determined that prolonged stress interferes with normal hair follicle development. In addition, hormones, neurotransmitters, and cytokines influence hair growth. Should anything interfere with those processes, hair growth is affected.

Don’t underestimate the value of the dentist/patient relationship: Dentists are on the frontline defense for understanding the physical and emotional challenges a patient may face. Although patients may be quick to notice physical changes, the mental and emotional side effects of sleep disorders aren’t always so clear. Listen for frustrations about work, relationships, or feeling overwhelmed about home and work responsibilities. That could be the ideal time to talk about a possible sleep disorder and solutions for better sleep health.