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What is it called when you fall asleep every time you sit down?

Falling asleep involuntarily when sitting down can be a sign of an underlying health condition. This tendency to suddenly fall asleep during daytime activities is known medically as excessive daytime sleepiness (EDS). EDS affects an estimated 10-25% of adults and can significantly impair daily functioning and quality of life. Several health issues can cause EDS, with the most common being sleep disorders like narcolepsy, sleep apnea, and restless leg syndrome. Other potential causes include insomnia, certain medications, mental health disorders, and medical conditions that disrupt sleep. Identifying and treating the root cause of EDS is key to managing this disruptive symptom.

What Causes Excessive Daytime Sleepiness?

There are several potential causes of EDS:

Sleep Disorders

Sleep disorders are the most common medical cause of excessive daytime sleepiness. Disorders like narcolepsy, obstructive sleep apnea, and restless legs syndrome can lead to non-restorative sleep and daytime fatigue.

Narcolepsy causes people to fall asleep suddenly and involuntarily during the day. People may experience “sleep attacks” where they fall asleep while engaged in activities. Along with excessive sleepiness, people with narcolepsy may have cataplexy (sudden loss of muscle tone), hallucinations, and sleep paralysis.

Obstructive sleep apnea causes repeated pauses in breathing during sleep, preventing restorative sleep. This leads to daytime sleepiness along with symptoms like snoring, gasping awake at night, and morning headaches.

Restless legs syndrome is characterized by uncomfortable sensations in the legs and an irresistible urge to move them. This prevents quality sleep at night, leading to EDS.


Insomnia makes it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep through the night. Not getting enough sleep can lead to sleepiness and fatigue during the daytime. Acute insomnia may be caused by stress, travel, or other temporal disruptions in routine. Chronic insomnia is the inability to sleep well for at least 3 nights a week for over 3 months.


Certain prescription and over-the-counter medications can also lead to daytime drowsiness as a side effect. Some common culprit medications include:

– Opioid pain medications
– Antidepressants
– Antihistamines
– Blood pressure medications
– Muscle relaxants

Mental Health Disorders

Mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder are associated with excessive sleepiness. This may be due to the conditions themselves disrupting sleep, or as a side effect of medications used to treat them.

Other Medical Conditions

Certain chronic medical conditions are also linked to daytime fatigue including:

– Thyroid disorders
– Anemia
– Heart disease
– Gastrointestinal disorders
– Neurological disorders like Parkinson’s disease

Poor Sleep Hygiene

Poor sleep practices can make it harder to get quality sleep at night. Examples of poor sleep hygiene include inconsistent bedtimes, use of electronic devices before bed, excessive alcohol, exercising too late at night, and uncomfortable sleep environment. Fixing poor sleep hygiene may help resolve excessive sleepiness.

When to See a Doctor

It’s normal to feel tired occasionally during the day. However, if you regularly struggle to stay awake during activities like working, driving, or socializing, it’s important to see a doctor. You should also see a doctor if you experience “sleep attacks” where you suddenly and uncontrollably fall asleep during the day.

Seeking timely medical care is crucial, as excessive sleepiness can substantially impact your safety and quality of life. Untreated sleep disorders like sleep apnea also increase the risk of problems like high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. A doctor can help identify any underlying causes of your daytime fatigue and craft an effective treatment plan.

Diagnosing the Cause of Excessive Daytime Sleepiness

To determine the cause of EDS, doctors will typically conduct:

Medical History and Physical Exam

Your doctor will ask about your sleep habits, bed/wake times, medications, mental health, and symptoms you’ve been experiencing. A physical exam can help rule out or identify issues like obesity, nasal obstruction, and neurological abnormalities.

Sleep Study

You may be referred for an overnight polysomnogram, also called a sleep study. This involves spending a night at a sleep lab with sensors attached to monitor your breathing, oxygen levels, heart rate, brain waves, and movements while you sleep. The study can diagnose sleep disorders like sleep apnea, periodic limb movement disorder, narcolepsy, and more.

Daytime Sleep Study

A daytime sleep study called the Multiple Sleep Latency Test (MSLT) may also be performed. During this test, you have the opportunity to nap every two hours while sensors monitor your brain waves and sleep onset. The MSLT helps assess daytime sleepiness and can aid in diagnosing narcolepsy.


Blood tests may be ordered to check for issues like anemia, thyroid problems, or vitamin deficiencies that could contribute to excessive sleepiness.

Treatments for Excessive Daytime Sleepiness

The treatment for EDS depends on the underlying cause identified. Some general treatment options include:

Treating Sleep Disorders

If a sleep disorder like sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome is diagnosed, treating the disorder can help relieve excessive sleepiness. Treatment options may include:

– CPAP machine for sleep apnea
– Medications to improve breathing during sleep
– Leg massage, hot baths, or medication for restless leg syndrome
– Medications like modafinil or armodafinil to treat narcolepsy

Improving Sleep Hygiene

Making changes to improve sleep hygiene can help treat EDS caused by poor sleep habits. Tips for better sleep hygiene include:

– Maintain a consistent sleep schedule
– Limit naps to 30 minutes
– Avoid alcohol, caffeine, and heavy meals before bed
– Make sure your sleep environment is cool, dark, and quiet
– Turn off electronic devices at least 30 minutes before bed
– Get regular exercise but avoid vigorous workouts near bedtime

Adjusting Medications

If medications are causing excessive sedation, your doctor may adjust the dosage or switch you to a different medication less likely to cause drowsiness.

Treating Underlying Conditions

Your doctor will also recommend treatment for any underlying health issues contributing to EDS, like thyroid disorders, mental health conditions, or anemia. Treating the root cause can alleviate excessive sleepiness.

Stimulant Medications

Your doctor may prescribe stimulant medications to help you stay awake during the daytime. Commonly prescribed stimulants for EDS include modafinil, armodafinil, methylphenidate, and amphetamines. These should be used under close medical supervision due to side effects and abuse potential.

Lifestyle Changes

Making healthy lifestyle modifications can also minimize daytime sleepiness:

– Get regular exercise
– Maintain a healthy diet
– Limit alcohol consumption
– Drink plenty of water throughout the day to stay hydrated
– Take short naps (under 30 min) when needed

Living with Excessive Daytime Sleepiness

It’s important to take steps to reduce risks associated with EDS:

Don’t Drive Drowsy

Avoid driving or operating machinery when excessively sleepy. Pull over if needed and take a nap before continuing. Consider public transportation or ride services if your drowsiness is not easily controlled with treatment.

Practice Good Sleep Hygiene

Follow good sleep hygiene consistently, even on weekends, to minimize fluctuations in sleepiness.

Ask for Accommodations at Work or School

Discuss any needed scheduling or workload accommodations with your employer, school, or teachers to manage your condition.

Schedule Activities Strategically

Plan engaging or essential activities during your peak energy times when you are less likely to fall asleep. Save monotonous tasks for times when you are prone to drowsiness.

Stay Physically and Socially Active

Regular physical activity, social interaction, and exposure to sunlight during the daytime can help boost your energy and alertness.

Use Caffeine Judiciously

Beverages with caffeine like coffee, tea, and energy drinks can temporarily increase alertness. However, caffeine should be used sparingly to prevent interference with sleep.

When to See Your Doctor

Follow up regularly with your doctor to assess the effectiveness of your EDS treatment plan. You should also contact your doctor right away if:

– Your excessive sleepiness gets worse
– You experience side effects from any medications
– You have symptoms of a new potentially sleep-related health issue
– You have questions or concerns about your condition

Ongoing communication with your medical providers can help optimize management of your EDS. Don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any issues controlling your daytime drowsiness.

The Bottom Line

Feeling abnormally drowsy during the day can negatively impact your quality of life and potentially put you in dangerous situations if driving or operating machinery when sleepy. If you struggle with excessive sleepiness or involuntary sleep episodes during activities, see your doctor for an evaluation. With an accurate diagnosis, you and your doctor can develop a treatment plan to help you reclaim restful nights and energetic days. Consistent follow up is key to ensure your sleep disorder is optimally managed on an ongoing basis.