Article at a Glance:
- Symptoms of Insomnia can lead to other symptoms.
- Sleep deprivation can lower motivation, and impact your ability to focus.
- Regular wake-up times lead to regular sleep onset times.
Tired of tossing and turning at night? You’re not alone. In fact, Insomnia is the most common of all sleep disorders, according to the American Psychiatric Association (APA). Approximately one-third of adults report having insomnia symptoms — 10% of which have symptoms severe enough for them to be diagnosed with insomnia disorder (National Sleep Foundation). In order to prevent insomnia and take control of your sleep, it’s important to monitor your daily habits and note other possible underlying medical or environmental conditions.
What is insomnia?
The word “insomnia’ originates from the Latin “in” (no) and “somnus” (sleep) (NCBI). It refers to a common disorder characterized by difficulty falling or staying asleep.
If you have insomnia, you may:
- Lie awake in bed for a long time before you actually fall asleep
- Sleep for only short periods of time
- Stay awake for much of the night
- Feel exhausted
- Wake up too early
These symptoms of insomnia can lead to other symptoms, such as fatigue, mood changes, and anxiety.
Insomnia can be acute or chronic. Acute insomnia lasts for shorter periods of time and is generally brought on by stress or a traumatic event. Chronic insomnia lasts for a month or longer and may be connected to other medical conditions.
What causes insomnia?
There are two types of insomnia – primary and secondary. Primary insomnia refers to sleeplessness that cannot be attributed to an existing medical, psychiatric or environmental cause (AASM). If your insomnia stems from an underlying condition – such as other sleep or mental disorders, or substance abuse – it’s called secondary insomnia.
Here’s a comprehensive list of biological, psychological, and social factors that may contribute to insomnia:
- Stress and anxiety. If you’ve experienced a traumatic event, such as losing your job, the death of a loved one, or divorce, it’s very natural for your body to feel more stressed. Unfortunately, racing thoughts and worry are basically the antitheses of sleep because they can keep your mind active at night.
- Depression and other mood disorders. There is a very strong association between sleep disturbance and major depression. A chemical imbalance in the brain may be to blame for disrupting sleep patterns. Fears and troubling thoughts may also play a contributing factor. In one survey, researchers that 97% of people reported sleep difficulties during depression episodes, and 59% of these indicated that poor sleep significantly affected their quality of life — further exacerbating a vicious cycle between insomnia and essentially all mood disorders. Depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder have all been shown to cause sleep problems.
- Age. Biological changes can make sleep more difficult as we age. Sleep disturbance is common in people with dementia, musculoskeletal disorders, and bladder instability. Elderly people also tend to take more medications that may disrupt sleep.
- Prescription drugs and over-the counter medications. Some cause insomnia, while others disrupt sleep quality (e.g. frequent trips to the bathroom) or trigger daytime drowsiness. These include:
- Decongestants or other allergy medications
- Heart and blood pressure medicines
- Stimulants. These are substances that affect the central nervous system and body, resulting in increased alertness and difficulty in getting to sleep. Many of your favorite beverages (e.g. coffee, tea, soft drinks and energy drinks) contain coffee, for example, which stimulates the brain. This particular substance takes up to six hours for the body to digest, so if you consume too late into the day, then you might have a harder time falling asleep later at night.
- Alcohol. This is a sedative that may help you fall asleep initially, but it will prevent you from reaching the deeper stages of sleep that are necessary to carry out important biological functions while you sleep – such as forming memories, removing toxins, and keeping the tissues and organs throughout your body healthy. If you’re unable to relax into these deeper stages of sleep, it’s very likely that you’ll find yourself tossing and turning throughout the night.
- Medical conditions. Many primary medical conditions can contribute to insomnia, such as: chronic pain, breathing difficulties, sleep apnea, arthritis, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, overactive thyroid, menopause, and obesity. If you suffer from any of these conditions and are experiencing insomnia, consult with your doctor on how you can address the primary concern and improve your sleep patterns.
- Sleep disorders. It’s very possible to experience insomnia if you have been diagnosed with other sleep disorders. For example, restless leg syndrome causes an uncontrollable urge to move your legs. Sleep apnea, which affects more than 936 million people worldwide, makes it difficult to control your breathing at night – often resulting in snoring, gasping for air, and frequently waking up.
- Environmental changes. The human body is biologically programmed to operate within a 24-hour cycle that is mostly dependent on light exposure. So, naturally, you should wake up when the sun rises and go to sleep when it’s dark outside. However, many people do shift work, which forces them to differentiate their sleep/wake cycle from the normal rhythm that regulates the body’s sleep cycles, body temperature, and metabolism. Similarly, traveling across time zones can result in jet lag symptoms, including insomnia.
How does insomnia affect your health?
According to Matthew Walker, “The decimation of sleep throughout industrialized nations is having a catastrophic impact on our health, our wellness, even the safety and education of our children. It’s a silent sleep loss epidemic. It’s fast becoming one of the greatest challenges we face in the 21st century.”
Science shows that sleep deprivation:
- Induces fatigue and daytime sleepiness
- Lowers motivation
- Impacts your ability to focus and learn new things
- Can make you more moody
- Makes you more forgetful
- Makes you more susceptible to errors or accidents
- Increases the likelihood of developing dementia and/or dying of a heart attack
- Weakens your immune system
- Makes you more vulnerable to cancer
Insomnia not only affects the individual with symptoms, but also his or her friends, coworkers, and caretakers. Insomnia patients are more likely to visit hospitals and physicians, have increased absenteeism, make errors or have accidents at work, and have more fatal road accidents (NCBI).
How can you prevent insomnia?
Whether your insomnia is acute or chronic, it’s important to be mindful of your daily habits and note other possible underlying medical or environmental conditions that may be affecting your ability to get good, consistent sleep.
Tips for preventing insomnia:
- Get up at the same time each day, seven days a week. Regular wake-up times lead to regular sleep onset times.
- Exercise daily in the morning or afternoon to deepen your sleep.
- Dedicate a room to just sleeping and insulate your sleep space against sound and light pollution.
- Keep your room temperature moderate as excessively warm or cold temperatures can disturb sleep.
- Ideally, you should stop consuming caffeine beverages (coffee, tea, colas) after 2pm since it takes 6-8 hours for your body to fully digest caffeine.
- Avoid alcohol, especially in the evening. Although alcohol helps people fall asleep more easily, their sleep is fragmented by alcohol. The chronic use of tobacco also disturbs sleep.
- Sleep only as much as needed to feel refreshed during the next day. Restricting time in bed solidifies sleep, and excessively long times in bed lead to fragmented and shallow sleep.
- If you can’t sleep, don’t keep tossing and turning. Get out of bed, go to a different room, and do something different until you feel sleepy and ready to attempt sleep again.
- Finally, if you find yourself looking at the clock at night, turn it so you can’t see it. Or better yet, cover it up completely! If this issue persists, consider either purchasing a clock that has a red display (which is less disruptive to sleep) or one that can be turned off completely. You can also use TrueDark® Stickers to cover the LED screen.
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