Have you ever heard of this sleep disorder called Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome? I have a close relation, a family member, who apparently has Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome. For the past 30-odd years, this relative has never had a “normal” sleep time. She goes to bed not earlier than 4 am, and sometimes at 7 or even 8 am, while waking up well into the late afternoon, typically around 2-3 pm; sometimes at 4-5 pm. By all accounts, this is what is called Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome (DSPS).
It will seem strange to others who have never met anyone with DSPS, or experienced this condition themselves, but rest assured, this disorder is very real, and often unrecognized. It is also pretty uncommon statistically, which is why many assume my relation is having a mental condition or just a case of bad attitude, when they hear about it. Many assume she is lazy, because she watches TV late into the night; what they don’t realize is, she can’t sleep even if she goes to bed early!
People with delayed sleep phase syndrome can never sleep at the assigned time, and are often very alert at night.
Common symptoms of delayed sleep phase disorder
Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome seems to run in families (my relation’s mother also has the condition), and it is often misdiagnosed as chronic insomnia. The difference between chronic insomnia and DSPS though, is that people with DSPS do feel sleepy and sleep, but at the wrong time.
It appears to be linked with some malfunctioning of the circadian rhythm, but only in the sense that the sleep-wake cycle timing is off. They do get bouts of insomnia where they don’t sleep for a couple of nights, but it is only temporal; most of the time, they do sleep 4-6 hours or more daily. They also wake up much later than what would be socially acceptable – Usually in the afternoon. Asking them to wake up earlier is almost impossible for them, because they would be in the middle of sleep by then.
There are usually no serious effects from DSPS; only thing is, these people are not your usual folks, and they cannot get a proper 9-5 kind of job. Their sleep timing may change from time to time, so they may go through these periodic “phases” where they may fall sleep at 4 am, and others where they fall asleep at 8 am and only get up in the evening.
There is no complete for delayed sleep phase syndrome, unfortunately
DSPS often begins during adolescence, and then it abates, OR it may continue for a lifetime. It can also progressively get worse, as in the sleep time moving further and further up, until the person with DSPS has an almost totally reverse lifestyle from normal people!
There is unfortunately, no satisfactory cure for serious cases of DSPS. Most people like my relation, have adapted to it (but she is lucky because she has not worked for decades and the family supports her). Many find jobs that have odd hours, or are flexible enough to fit their unorthodox sleep times.
Some websites may claim to have success with certain therapies, or procedures, but they do not work for everyone. In the case of my relation, she has lived with this for well over 30 years at least, and although somewhat elderly, is actually quite healthy, apart from her sleep condition.
The two agents for tackling circadian rhythm disorders are always light and melatonin. In the case of mild DSPS:
- Light therapy – Exposing yourself to light in the morning and avoiding light as much as possible at night.
- Taking melatonin a few hours prior to bedtime.
- Adopting a strict sleep hygiene regimen (requires plenty of discipline). Using a sleep eye mask to regulate melatonin output.
- Chronotherapy (Requires constant discipline).
The drawback of behavioral therapy like chronotherapy is, very few people are disciplined enough to stick with it for a sustained period of time, since those with DSPS do get their daily sleep quota – so may not be sufficiently determined to follow through with this night after night. And, any non adherence to the regimen will cause a relapse.
Can you get DSPS if you constantly sleep late?
This is a question of which I don’t yet know the answer, but I do think in today’s 24/7 world, there is a real risk of damaging your circadian rhythm clock (within your hypothalamus) for good, by constantly pushing your bedtime later and later – because you could very well find it extremely difficult to reverse it later on, and this may then develop into mild DSPS!
If you suffer from Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome, I’m curious to know how you deal or live with it.