Primary insomnia, major depression, and narcolepsy are usually considered to be separate disorders, distinguished by different polysomnographic profiles. But do polysomnographic data provide adequate evidence to segregate the three disorders, or might they display fundamentally the same sleep disturbance, differing only in degree? To test the viability of these two alternate hypotheses, the authors performed a meta-analysis of controlled polysomnographic studies of these disorders. A summary measure of degree of sleep disturbance was constructed from five variables: wakefulness after sleep onset, percentage of stage 1 sleep, percentage of stage 3 + 4 sleep, rapid eye movement (REM) latency, and REM density. The results of available studies for each variable were combined using a weighted average of effect sizes. An overall "sleep disturbance index" was then calculated by combining the estimates for the five above listed variables. On both the individual measures and especially on the summary index, insomnia, depression, and narcolepsy were arrayed on a simple continuum of progressively more severe sleep disturbance--congruent with the clinical observation that these disorders display progressively more disturbed sleep. These findings suggest that sleep can be disturbed in only a limited number of ways: in evaluating sleep architecture, it may not be possible to elaborate much beyond a single axis of good-to-bad sleep. Thus, polysomnographic measures may not provide adequate evidence to classify insomnia, depression, and narcolepsy as separate entities.