Insomnia can be defined as a person’s inability to either fall asleep or stay asleep. Those who experience insomnia either short term or long term tend to suffer from extreme fatigue that they cannot seem to reverse following this broken or nonexistent sleep.
Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder, affecting an estimated one-third of all adults each year.
Types of Insomnia
There are two general types of insomnia. Insomnia that lasts up to three months and affects you fewer than three days a week is considered to be short-term or acute insomnia. However, if insomnia lasts more than three months and takes place two to three nights per week, then it is considered long term and chronic.
Acute insomnia is usually a short-term response to stressful factors or life events. This type of insomnia usually does not need treatment as it tends to resolve on its own. If your insomnia episodes last fewer than three months, you would be classified as having acute insomnia.
Chronic insomnia is a long-term disorder. While everyone has trouble falling asleep now and then, 6 to 10% of the population is diagnosed with chronic insomnia disorder.
The diagnosis is made when the patient has difficulty sleeping for at least three nights per week, lasting a minimum of three months and causing significant functional problems in day-to-day life. Chronic insomnia usually requires treatment.
Chronic insomnia can be indicative of more severe medical conditions. If left untreated, chronic insomnia can lead to even greater medical issues such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
Symptoms of Insomnia
Symptoms of insomnia include having problems getting to sleep at night, waking up frequently or waking up too early. These symptoms can affect people of all ages. Other symptoms of insomnia include unrestful sleep that leaves you still feeling fatigued the next day, day napping and fatigue.
Who Gets Insomnia?
Insomnia can strike anyone at any age. It is most frequently found in young adults and in the elderly. For young adults, the insomnia manifests as someone having difficulty falling asleep. For older individuals, insomnia comes from waking frequently during the night.
Some people are at a higher risk of suffering from insomnia than others. If your lifestyle includes a lot of travel where you change time zones or work different shifts from week to week or you suffer from depression, you are at a higher risk for developing insomnia. Other high-risk individuals include those with a lower income and those living a sedentary lifestyle.
What Causes Insomnia?
Insomnia is usually your brain’s response to stressful situations or life events. If you are under stress at work or are having difficulties in your home life, insomnia can easily become a problem.
Some lifestyles are more conducive to insomnia than others. Failure to keep to a healthy diet and regular exercise can lead to a sedentary lifestyle.
Those who have suffered a traumatic event or an injury can easily fall into patterns of unhealthy sleep. You should always seek medical advice in these situations to avoid developing bad sleep habits.
Effects of Insomnia
Everyone needs sleep to function. In particular, your brain needs sleep to function. When insomnia strikes, there are lasting effects whether your insomnia is acute or chronic. Consequences of not getting enough sleep can have negative effects on every aspect of your life.
In the short term, the effects of insomnia include:
- Severe fatigue
- Inability to focus
- Decrease in energy
- Mood swings
You may find yourself unable to complete schoolwork or focus on your job. Depression and anxiety can both lead to a lack of sleep as well as be exacerbated by it.
The long-term effects of insomnia are literally dangerous to your health. Over time, you could develop heart disease or diabetes. Feeling fatigued all the time can lead to a sedentary lifestyle, which can lead to chronic disease and obesity.
Chronic insomnia also leads to depression or exacerbates it if it already exists. Chronic insomnia is also considered an important early symptom of dementia.
If you start to have too many episodes of sleepless nights, you can start to look at your sleep patterns by keeping a sleep diary. In it, you can document how long it takes you to fall asleep, how long you stayed asleep, things that woke you up and your state of mind when you went to bed. You can write down any circumstances that might contribute to the stress that is keeping you awake. Make sure to write down everything that you ate or drank during the evening hours.
Your doctor will want to rule out possible causes of your insomnia. They need to make sure that you do not have other sleep conditions such as sleep apnea. In the case of insomnia, you might be asked to do a sleep study. Bring your sleep diary to your appointment with you so that your doctor can take your activities into account when evaluating your sleep issues.
Chronic insomnia is a dangerous condition. It will only be diagnosed once your doctor has ruled out any other medical causes for your lack of sleep.
Insomnia Treatment Options
When insomnia becomes chronic or too frequent, there are treatments available. There are both prescription drugs and over-the-counter supplements available. It is best to talk to your doctor about the best course of treatment.
Prescription Sleep Aids
Prescription sleep aids are classified as sedative-hypnotics. While they can be useful in the short term, there are several possible side effects of these drugs. Side effects can include:
- Drowsiness the next day
- Memory loss
- Dry mouth
- Digestive issues such as constipation or diarrhea
- Changes in appetite
- Nightmares or other unusual dreams
- Heartburn or excessive gas
- Difficulty keeping your balance
- Allergic reactions
There is one other side effect that, while rare, can be dangerous. Parasomnias are activities that you perform while you are asleep. These activities can include sleepwalking, sleep eating or sleep driving. With parasomnias, the patient has no recollection of the activity.
Prescription sleep aids are powerful and dangerous drugs. The potential to become dependent on them is high, and addiction to these drugs is not uncommon. Prescription sleep aids should only be used under strict physician supervision and for a short time.
While not as powerful as prescription sleep aids, it is easy to become dependent on over-the-counter sleep aids as well. Make sure your doctor is involved in your decision to use these drugs.
People who have had issues with any sort of substance use disorder should avoid these drugs. While it is easy for anyone to become dependent on them, a person with an existing addiction disorder could become easily addicted.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, is a drug-free alternative that has proven to be quite effective on insomnia. This short-term solution teaches you how to make lifestyle changes that will enable you to develop healthy sleep habits.
CBT can include relaxation techniques, meditation and learning to practice healthy sleep habits known as sleep hygiene.
Homeopathic Treatment Options
Many people find relief from their insomnia through the use of natural supplements containing herbs such as chamomile and valerian root. Melatonin and L-Tryptophan are also completely natural alternatives for sleep.
Always make sure that you discuss homeopathic solutions with your doctor before you begin a natural regimen. Many homeopathic supplements can have a negative reaction with other important medications you may need.
Other holistic treatments and practices to help you sleep at night can include things like meditation or massage. Many people rely on the relaxing scent of essential oils used in aromatherapy such as lavender or chamomile to help them relax. Taking a long, hot bath is always a good way to relax before bed.
Part of a healthy practice is to let the stress of your day go before you try to go to sleep. Keeping a journal allows you to write down the important parts of your day and to release them from worry before you try to go to bed. You can always go back and read what you wrote.
The best way to avoid insomnia is to develop healthy sleep habits, more commonly known as “sleep hygiene.” While it is nice to sleep in on an occasional weekend morning, it is important that you try to keep your bedtime and the time you wake up in the morning the same on the weekends as the weekdays. These habits are recommended for sound sleep:
- Your bedroom should be a place that is reserved for sleep. You should limit any other activities as they can make it too easy to stay awake. Video games and television can actually cause you stress and should be eliminated from your sleeping environment.
- Your bed should only be used for sleep and sexual activity. Avoid using it to watch TV, study or work.
- When you first go to bed, if you do not fall asleep within approximately 20 minutes, you should get back up. Do a relaxing activity for a few minutes and then get back into bed to try again.
- While exercise is important, it should not take place in the evening before bed. Exercise can give you energy that is not conducive to going to sleep.
- Avoid caffeinated beverages during the late afternoon and at night. The caffeine can stay in your system and keep you awake.
- Avoid alcohol before bedtime. Alcohol disrupts the natural sleep cycle, so you don’t get as deep or restful sleep.
- Nicotine is also a stimulant. Avoid smoking cigarettes or chewing tobacco close to bedtime.
- Do not attempt to go to bed unless you are actually sleepy.
- Avoid bright lights during the evening hours.
- Take the time to develop a personally relaxing bedtime routine. This could include meditation or reading. Avoid watching TV or playing video games. Activities that stimulate will be counterproductive during this time.
- Do not eat a large meal when it is close to bedtime. If you are hungry, select a light snack to hold you over.
- Reduce the amount of fluids you consume within the last couple of hours before bedtime. Filling up with fluids only gives you another excuse to wake up in the middle of the night.
- Try to set yourself a bedtime that will allow for a minimum of seven hours of sleep.
- Make sure you turn off all of your electronic devices at least a half-hour before your intended bedtime.
- Try to keep to a strict sleep and wake schedule. An important part of sleep hygiene is training yourself to gain healthier sleep and limit insomnia incidents.
Insomnia is a difficult and stressful condition, but with the proper treatment, you can get back to a regular and healthy sleep cycle.