Insomnia is an incredibly common sleep disorder affecting people of all ages. Not only is it frustrating, demotivating and fatiguing, but it is also a cause for great concern as it greatly reduces productivity and may even prove to be a symptom of other health-related problems. For example, insomnia can occur together with several nervous system disorders such as anxiety, depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Insomnia is often described as sleeplessness or troubled sleep. It is a primary sleep disorder and has a debilitating effect on productivity, negatively alters mood and emotional stability and affects daily life. Whether it is a matter of sleep hygiene, a medical symptom or accompanies psychiatric disorders, insomnia results in strong feelings of frustration, irritability, cognitive, emotional and physical impairment which is why it should be dealt with immediately.
What is insomnia? Insomnia is a sleep disorder characterized by the following 5 symptoms:
1) Difficulty falling asleep.
2) Difficulty remaining asleep.
3) Inability to return to sleep.
4) Poor quality sleep that leaves one feeling tired.
5) Inability to function properly when awake, due to insufficient or poor-quality sleep, often occurring in the form of sleepiness during daytime.
The condition may encourage a bad disposition and further negative feelings of frustration, irritability, anger, sadness or even increase the risk for depression and anxiety. Diagnosing the disorder may prove problematic as several tests are required to expose sleeping patterns on the basis of which it is measured. Medical history, physical examinations, psychiatric examinations (if necessary), identifying sleep habits, sleep observation either in the form of a sleep diary or sleep studies such as PSG (polysomnogram) are efficient screening methods to help a sleep specialist diagnose the disorder.
What causes insomnia?
While insomnia may only accompany other potentially serious medical conditions such as depression or severe psychiatric disorders, it is very often the result of bad lifestyle habits and poor sleep hygiene. Here are 7 pivotal aspects of the disorder all insomnia sufferers should contemplate on:
1) Alcoholic beverages. Many people drink alcohol to help them sleep as alcohol is viewed as a sort of sleeping aid. However, alcohol consumption was recently found to interfere with homeostasis, a natural body regulation process. In addition to the regulation of blood glucose (through insulin and glucagon), blood pH, cell number or cell size, homeostasis also regulates sleep by helping the body decide when is the best time for a resting sleep episode, in accordance with circadian rhythms and the body’s need for rest at a said time. In other words, regular consumption of alcoholic beverages impairs the body’s regulation processes, including sleep.
2) Caffeine. A high intake of coffee and herbal teas rich in caffeine may help us stay awake at the right time, but it will also delay sleep onset and, as a result, delay waking time as well. Basically, caffeine disrupts normal sleeping patterns, when consumed in great amounts and at inappropriate hours. While one cup of coffee or green tea in the morning might make you feel awake and energized, avoid drinking them in the afternoon or evening. Similarly, dark chocolate may delay sleep onset if consumed at night.
3) Cigarette smoke. Nicotine is a nervous and cardiovascular system stimulant, similar to caffeine. By stimulating the brain to remain awake, nicotine causes restlessness and agitation and engenders a greater difficulty falling asleep.
4) Stress. People nowadays are under a lot of stress. They feel pressured to have a career, work long hours so they make enough money to pay the bills, rent, mortgage, utilities and other expenses, but also spend time with their family, take up a hobby, see friends regularly, have children and so on. All of this amounts to a lot of effort and the pressure to succeed in all aspects of your life, especially when everyone is breathing down your neck to do so as soon as possible, is a major cause of stress. And who can go right to sleep and not lay in bed at night thinking about chores, work, meetings, bills and so on first?
5) Anxiety and depression. Anxiety is a serious medical disorder characterized by constant worrying about everyday things. Having a mind full of thoughts, fears and being concerned about everything can easily prevent one from falling asleep and resting well. Similarly, depression comes with great emotional suffering as a result of low self-esteem, lack of interest in pleasurable activities and negative feelings which, according to research, directly impact sleeping habits.
Other mental disorders, especially those derived from a form of anxiety disorder, such as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or obsessive compulsive disorder (can’t go to sleep until things are done or arranged a certain way) contribute to insomnia as well. See what are the main 7 types of anxiety disorder and how they manifest.
6) Electronics. It has been shown that having electronic devices in the bedroom and using them prior to going to sleep negatively impacts sleeping habits. It’s hard to put away your cell phone, laptop, tablet or other electronic devices as they are too interesting and captivating to put them down. This means that we are more likely to read an extra article, watch another episode of our favorite show, play another round of a game and so on instead of going to sleep, although we may feel the need to.
In addition to this, artificial lighting coming from these devices was shown to disturb normal circadian rhythms, which means that our body can’t tell anymore if it’s time for us to rest or not. The best thing to remedy this is to turn off lamps and, should the temptation be too much, keep electronic devices outside the bedroom. After about 3 weeks, the body will naturally revert to its normal circadian rhythms.
7) Other causes. Generally, people over 60 and women are more at risk of developing insomnia due to hormonal changes impacting normal sleeping cycles. Similarly, people working night shifts and those travelling on a regular basis to areas belonging to different time zones may suffer from insomnia due to disturbed circadian rhythms.
Types of insomnia
Depending on its severity, insomnia may be classified into 3 types:
1) Transient or ‘passing’ insomnia. Transient insomnia can be a result of stress, anxiety disorders, depression or simply bad lifestyle habits engendering bad sleeping habits. It does not generally last.
2) Acute insomnia. When you have trouble falling asleep or remaining asleep for the duration of the night and wake up feeling tired and unrefreshed for up to a month, then you might be diagnosed with acute insomnia. Exhibiting insomnia symptoms for such a long period of time causes decreased daytime productivity.
3) Chronic insomnia occurs when symptoms of insomnia exceed one month. They may last up to 6 months or indefinitely, if medical assistance is not offered. Not enjoying restorative sleep for long periods of time causes stress levels to skyrocket and the condition to severely impact daily life.
What to do?
Recommendations regarding insomnia are best required from a medical professional who is acquainted with your medical history, symptoms and severity of the disorder. Nonetheless, there are a few things you can do to create the best possible conditions for a resting sleep.
1) Avoid stimulants. Coffee, dark teas, alcohol, dark chocolate and any other foods and beverages containing caffeine or other stimulants (such as the nicotine in cigarettes) should be avoided for at least 3-4 days at a time.
2) Avoid naps. Frequent afternoon naps may be refreshing, but, at the same time, they can jeopardize your night sleep. Go for a bike ride, dance a little, go out with friends and tire yourselves so you can’t wait to go to sleep at night. Going outdoors is also a great way to relieve stress, another major cause for insomnia.
3) Eat at regular intervals. Planning your meals is important because so you don’t go to bed with a full stomach. Eat a nutritious breakfast, a plentiful lunch and a light dinner (at least two hours before bed). A full stomach is a big inconvenient for anyone wanting to sleep, not to mention for someone already having trouble falling asleep.
4) No electronics or artificial lighting. Put away your phone, tablet and laptop and avoid keeping a television of personal computer in the bedroom. Turn off the light and don’t use any overnight lamps. This should help restore normal circadian function which is pivotal for treating insomnia.
5) Establish a sleeping schedule. Try to go to sleep early at night, especially if your have to go to work early in the morning. Try to go to sleep and wake up at the same time so your body gets accustomed to a schedule. Give yourself time to fall asleep: if you want to fall asleep by 10 p.m., go to bed at 8 or 8.30 p.m. This should relieve you of the pressure of calculating whether or not you will get enough sleep.
6) Make yourself comfortable. Comfy, loose clothes, soft pillows, a warm blanket, proper room temperature and no noises: this is what is required for a resting sleep.
7) Don’t stress. Make it your purpose that when you go to bed you don’t think about anything negative. When you feel a thought about an unpaid bill approaching, immediately think about something positive. Think about 10 funny things and 10 inspiring ideas every night before going to sleep, or remember 5 funny stories or 20 jokes when lying in bed instead of worrying about not falling asleep.
Insomnia is awfully frustrating. And if it occurs more than occasionally, then it might not just go away by itself. It takes some work to think positive, rewire your brain not to worry, remain optimistic and not focus on the bad, but it’s something we can do to change our perspective about our situation and gather the courage to make a change and persevere. So if you don’t sleep well tonight, well, you can do it tomorrow night or the next night. Even though the thought of not sleeping and having work the next day is reason enough to be frustrated. Another day is another opportunity to overcome insomnia.
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