What Is Insomnia & How Can It Be Treated?
Good sleep enables you to function. It keeps your body healthy and your mind sharp. Without it, you are at risk for problems such as accidents and chronic disease, and even social challenges resulting from a disrupted temperament. But what if the sleep that you need eludes you or the sleep that you do get is of poor quality and interrupted? You’re in good company, because as much as half of the general population is affected by sleep difficulties, and for one in ten people, insomnia is chronic. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to improve your situation.
What Is Insomnia?
Insomnia is characterized by difficulties falling or staying asleep, as well as waking too early and being unable to get back to sleep. Since the average adult needs seven or eight hours of uninterrupted sleep each night, insomnia results in sleep deprivation, which can have adverse effects on health and well-being, some of which include:
- Mood swings
- Motivation loss
- High blood pressure
- Heart attack
- Judgment errors resulting in accidents and injury
- Alcohol use
It’s not just adults who fall victims to insomnia. Adolescent sleep deprivation is also common. Of all the recognized sleep disorders (such as sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome), insomnia is the one that is reported the most.
Stages and Types
There are three main types of insomnia, categorized primarily by their duration:
- Transient: Lasts anywhere from a few days to a week, and is typically caused by a new stress, illness, or a change of environment.
- Acute: Persists for several weeks and is often triggered by bereavement, significant stress, or a prolonged illness.
- Chronic: Sleep difficulties have persisted for three months or longer and are caused by ongoing factors such as poor health or shift work.
Symptoms and Causes
Other than difficulty falling and staying asleep, additional symptoms of insomnia are the effects of lack of adequate sleep. These include:
- Excessive sleepiness during the day
- Depressed mood
- Poor memory
- Difficulty concentrating
- Impaired coordination
- Frequent accidents
Identifying the cause of your insomnia can help you find a solution. Some causes are lifestyle related, some are psychological, and some are medical:
- Poor diet
- Environmental factors such as noise or temperature
- Bipolar disorder
- Circadian rhythm disorders
- Restless leg syndrome
Prevention and Risks
In many cases, you can reduce your likelihood of developing insomnia with a few lifestyle changes:
- Maintain a regular schedule.
- Don’t oversleep or nap.
- Exercise daily, but not close to bedtime.
- Don’t smoke.
- Eat regular meals.
- Avoid caffeine in the afternoon.
- Create a healthy sleep environment: attend to light, temperature, and noise.
- Don’t use TV to fall asleep.
- Manage your worries, such as by writing them down, before bedtime.
Certain risk factors make you more likely to have insomnia. They include:
- Female gender
- Advanced age
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Sleep-disruptive medical conditions
- Emotional distress
- Travel through time zones
- Changing schedule
- Poor health
Diagnosis and Tests
The source of your sleep problems is what your doctor will diagnose, based on medical history and a physical exam. Factors your doctor will consider include:
- Previous or still existing health problems
- Symptoms or history of a psychological condition such as depression
- Medication use
- Life event stresses
If the cause of your insomnia is still unclear, your doctor might recommend a sleep study, also known as polysomnography, which is a test used to diagnose sleep disorders. This test uses removable sensors that are placed in various locations, such as your eyelids and chest, to monitor your vital signs and your sleep patterns. The test can be done at your home using a portable monitoring device, or at a sleep center, where you sleep. The test results can help to pinpoint the cause of your insomnia and help your doctor recommend appropriate treatment.
Treatment, Procedures, and Medication
Your family doctor may be the only person you need to see to diagnose and treat your insomnia. However if required, you can get a referral to a specialist who deals specifically with sleep issues or with the underlying cause of your sleep troubles. Doctors who may be able to help include:
- Sleep medicine specialist (sleep)
- Psychiatrist (mood disorders)
- Neurologist (brain)
- Pulmonologist (lung disease)
- Otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat)
- Dentist (jaw alignment, for easier breathing)
Treating insomnia involves addressing the underlying cause, such as mental health issues, alcohol or caffeine intake. If this is not successful, therapy or medication may help.
Types of therapy include:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy, to change negative or anxious thoughts
- Relaxation techniques
- Stimulus control therapy, to identify and remove factors that prevent sleep
- Paradoxical intention, to remove the stress of trying to sleep by going to bed and purposefully staying awake
- Sleep restriction, to induce fatigue
- Light therapy, to reset circadian rhythms
Medication is also available, both by prescription and over-the-counter. Sleep aids such as these have side effects and can be habit-forming, so consult with your doctor first before using them.
Healthy Lifestyle Tips
Insomnia is a condition that is affected by lifestyle, which you can control. If sleep eludes you, consider contributing factors that you can change:
- Being sedentary
- Eating poorly
- Drinking alcohol
- Consuming too much caffeine
- Neglecting to keep a consistent schedule
The better you sleep, the healthier you’ll be, but the reverse is also true: making changes to optimize your health will also improve your sleep.
Alternative therapies can also help you sleep at night, some of which include:
- Melatonin, a sleep hormone, available in supplement form
- Valerian, a herb with a sedating effect
- Meditation, which may reduce the stress that can cause insomnia
- Tai Chi
What you eat can affect how well you sleep. Your insomnia may even be eliminated with dietary changes alone if your diet is the underlying cause.
Food and beverages that help you sleep include:
- Whole grains
- Food containing iron
- Chamomile tea
- Jasmine rice
Items to avoid include:
- Caffeine, in the afternoon and evening
- Alcohol, in the evening
- Large meals before bed
- Fluids past 8:00 pm
- High-fat food
- Protein in the evening
Insomnia is so common that 10% of the population has the chronic variety alone, making the overall number of those with sleep struggles even higher. It can affect people of all ages, and if not addressed, it can have a detrimental impact on your well-being. Fortunately, it’s very treatable, so if sleep problems plague you, visit your doctor for help.
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- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: Why Is Sleep Important?
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: What Is Insomnia?
- Sleep Management Institute: Insomnia
- Mayo Clinic: Insomnia
- National Sleep Foundation: Insomnia & You
- Sleep Disorders and Sleep Deprivation: An Unmet Public Health Problem: Extent and Health Consequences of Chronic Sleep Loss and Sleep Disorders
- Andrew Weil, M.D.: Natural Sleep Aids & Tips
- Sleep Habits: The 3 Types of Insomnia: Transient, Acute and Chronic Insomnia
- Reader's Digest: What to Eat to Cure Insomnia
- Healthy Sleep: An Overview of Sleep Disorders
- Reader's Digest: 16 Foods That Help You Sleep
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: Insomnia: Definition, Prevalence, Etiology, and Consequences