You only need one run in with a sleepless night to understand that sleep deprivation is no laughing matter. But does one night without sleep mean you have insomnia? The fact is insomnia can be a very serious condition with the potential for some very serious consequences. But what is it exactly? What qualifies as insomnia? Simply put, it’s a sleep disorder that disturbs a person’s ability to fall asleep and/or stay asleep. It can be acute or chronic and it can be primary or secondary.
Am I Predisposed?
There are risk factors associated with insomnia including major life events and it’s more likely to be an issue for women, because we experience hormonal changes during our menstrual cycle, pregnancy and menopause.
Here are some other risk factors for developing insomnia:
- Chronic medical conditions and mental health disorders, such as asthma, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), arthritis, depression, anxiety, allergies, and thyroid problems
- Taking certain medications
- Changes in sleep patterns and health as you get older
- Jobs with odd working hours, frequent travel, or changes in schedule
- Poor sleep habits and sleeping environment
- Excessive use of alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine
What Are the Symptoms?
Symptoms of chronic and acute insomnia are generally the same, but the condition is considered chronic when you experience symptoms 3 or more times a week for 3 months or longer. Insomnia of any kind can result in impairments like:
- Fatigue and malaise
- Difficulty concentrating, paying attention, or remembering things
- Impairments to social, professional, and academic performance
- Irritability and mood disturbances
- Excessive daytime sleepiness
- Hyperactivity, aggression, and other behavioral issues
- Increased risk for errors and accidents
- I quoted this list from SleepFoundation.org
There are also complications of chronic insomnia like increasing your risk of developing medical problems and making some existing conditions worse – like asthma, heart disease, chronic pain and immune system & metabolic (appetite and digestion) issues. Medical complications can range from mild to life-threatening and there’s also significant research linking chronic insomnia to serious mental illness. The science reported by Harvard Medicine on the subject is quite compelling.
I Can’t Sleep!
The Harvard Medical School also had some good recommendations for creating the conditions you need for proper sleep. They start with lifestyle changes like avoiding caffeine, nicotine and alcohol before bedtime. (We should probably add sugar to that list.) They also say that regular physical activity, as in aerobic, helps people fall asleep faster and spend more time in deep sleep. Then there’s sleep hygiene – which we all know about, but it bears repeating:
- Maintain a regular sleep-and-wake schedule
- Use your bedroom only for sleeping or sex
- Keep the bedroom dark and free of distractions (like the computer or television)
- Block any blue light from sight
I also like some of the sleep-good tips from HEALTH’s website. Here are some of them with my comments:
Make a To Do List - Writing tomorrow’s tasks down can help you calm worries that are keeping you tossing and turning. I’ve actually tried this and it works well to help with putting tomorrow’s issues aside while you sleep.
Get Out Of Bed – If you lie awake for more than 20 to 30 minutes, get out of bed and do something else. Otherwise, you may train your brain to associate your bed and bedroom with insomnia which will make the problem worse over time.
Read A Book – The goal here is to get your brain to focus on something neutral. So choose a book that is not too stimulating.
Listen to a Podcast or Audio Book – Find a topic that’s not too exciting!
Listen to Soothing Sounds – Sounds from nature like the ocean or white noise works for some people.
Focus on Breathing – Here’s a technique from sleep specialist Michael Breus, PhD: Place one hand on your chest and the other on your belly. Inhale through your nose for about two seconds, feeling your belly expand, then push gently on your belly as you slowly exhale. Repeat. Thank you, Dr. Breus.
Guided Meditation – There are apps, podcasts and YouTube videos that can help you get started. Seriously, meditation is all the rage and there are many resources.
Do I Need a Doctor?
According to SleepFoundation.org,
“you should consult with your doctor or another credentialed physician if ongoing lack of sleep is negatively impacting your mood, performance, and other aspects of your daily life.”
That’s pretty straightforward and in line with the other sources I consulted. So, if insomnia is impacting your life, see someone sooner than later. Your doctor can help with testing, treatment and referrals to specialists.
The good news is there is help for insomnia. People can and do get past it – sometimes on their own, like with acute insomnia, and other times with help as is often the case with chronic insomnia. Your doctor may also recommend:
Cognitive Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I)
This therapy focuses on finding and eliminating “beliefs and behaviors” that negatively impact sleep. It also is about developing good sleep habits and dealing with worrying and stress.
There are many different sleep aids – over-the-counter and prescription. Your doctor can help you determine the best medication, dose and strategy for dealing with your insomnia.
Please reach out to a health professional, if you’re experiencing daytime complications – like you’re tired all the time or you’re forgetting things, or any symptom on the list of complications. It’s vitally important to seek help to get to the bottom of insomnia before it progresses to something more serious.
Credit Where Credit Is Due
I consulted multiple sources when I was writing this piece. The American Sleep Association, SleepFoundation.org, Mayo Clinic, Harvard Medical School, Health, National Sleep Foundation. These are all good resources, if you want to find out more about insomnia.
Here’s a link to an article on insomnia published by the American Sleep Association. It’s a good overview.
Before You Go
One more thing. Here's a graphic presentation of the side effects of sleep deprivation created by researcher, Patrick Finan, Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins. Check it out - it's important.