It’s natural for everyone to have sleep problems every once in a while. When sleeplessness becomes habitual or unrelenting, however, the condition is referred to as “insomnia.”
Insomniacs spend a disproportionate amount of time worrying about sleep. It can be a vicious cycle, in which preoccupation over being able to fall asleep creates anxiety and prevents you from falling or staying asleep. If you find yourself dreading bedtime, you’re not alone.
The CDC estimates that upwards of seventy million people in the U.S. suffer from some type of sleep disorder.
Causes of Insomnia
Life in the modern world is hectic. Long work hours, chronic stress, late-night shifts, and a multitude of other factors are robbing us of the ability to unwind and shut off our minds when it’s time to sleep.
Although insomnia sometimes occurs for no identifiable reason, the following are some of the more common known causes:
Our growing dependence on our constantly-present electronic devices is possibly one of the biggest obstacles to restful sleep. Smart phones, TVs, video games, and laptops dominate every feature of our daily living.
By flashing a torrent of images and data at us at an unnatural speed, electronics stimulate our brains at a startling rate. The problem may bigger than previously thought.
A recent study of the brain scans of people diagnosed with “internet addictions” revealed white matter changes similar to those found in drug addicts.
Children are notably affected by overstimulation, but adults, too, can be adversely impacted by a relentless stream of information at all hours.
The blue light presented by our screens also tricks our brains into believing it’s daytime and thus halts its production of melatonin, the sleep hormone.
2. Persistent stress at work or at home
Problems that go go unresolved during each day tend to come back to haunt us during our subconscious periods. Professional pressures or marital strife can create significant sleep problems.
3. Poor sleep hygiene
People who lack a bedtime routine or sleep in an environment that is full of light, noise, or physical distractions may have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep.
4. Ongoing health issues
Chronic or stressful health problems, either physical or mental, are notorious destroyers of sleep. Chronic pain, acid reflux, or urinary incontinence, just to name a few, disrupt sleep throughout the night.
Untreated depression and anxiety can prevent you from falling asleep at night but make you somnolent during the daytime, aggravating the problem further.
Sleep apnea, characterized by obstructive snoring and pauses in breathing, is another big contributor to sleep deprivation.
5. Shift work
Biologically, we are programmed to be up with the sun and down with the sun, but obviously that is not the reality of the modern world. People who work night shifts or overlapping hours, such as hospital workers and police officers, frequently develop sleep disorders.
6. Genetic causes
New research published this month by the National Sleep Foundation revealed a genetic link that predisposes some people to insomnia. Analyses of the genomes of more than 113,000 patients resulted in the identification of seven genes for insomnia.
Not surprisingly, these same genes overlapped with some that are associated with psychiatric disorders and restless leg syndrome, both well-documented sleep disruptors.
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The Impact of Sleep Deprivation on Health
Habitual sleeplessness has the potential to affect every aspect of your health. The immediate affect on your mental health is the most noticeable symptom. Clinical depression and anxiety are common complaints of the sleepless.
What’s more, insomniacs experience a lack of mental sharpness and a loss of productivity at work. For people who work in high risk industries such as airport traffic control, patient care, or construction, this can be an exceptionally dangerous situation.
Not only can it cause daytime grogginess and irritability, but studies by the NIH found a positive correlation between insomnia and a number of serious health conditions.
Chronic sleep loss can cause you to produce abnormal amounts of the stress hormone cortisol, which in turn promotes weight gain, high blood pressure, heart damage, and glucose intolerance (a prediabetic condition).
How to Seek Help
If you are spending too many nights staring at the ceiling and suffering the consequences during the day, it’s time to see your doctor.
Prepare for the appointment by keeping a sleep journal that demonstrates how many nights you are spending tossing and turning.
Write down how many days per week you spend sleepless, how long the issue has gone on, and any home remedies that you may have tried. If the condition is impacting your quality of life, do not be shy about making this point clear.
Your doctor will first assess if there is any underlying medical condition that may be contributing to your misery at night.
Once that has been ruled out, he or she may prescribe a short term medication regimen along with any one of a number of alternative therapies to help you regain good sleep habits.
Most cases of insomnia are short term episodes that resolve on their own and require little intervention. For insomniacs whose symptoms are persistent, it’s best to start with a conservative approach that retrains the brain for sleep.
Try establishing a nightly routine of relaxing activities such as yoga, stretching, or conscious breathing. A hot bath or warm tea is also very soothing. Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.
A short course of melatonin or Benadryl can help you establish a routine sleep time each night. Keep your bedroom organized, cool, and relaxing, and do not engage any electronics or vigorous activities for two hours before bed.
Certain medications can be prescribed to help you get over the hump. Some are intended for short term therapy and others are safe to use regularly.
For those who work off-shift or for whom daytime somnolence is an issue, the nootropic drug Modafinil can be used to help you stay alert during work hours. Your doctor can discuss the pros and cons of the various medication options.
It’s worth noting, however, that supplements are only a temporary crutch to fixing health issues. Many folks liken nootropics to the pill from the movie Limitless, but in reality, no such pill exists. Long lasting lifestyle and behaviour changes are necessary in order to have good sleep hygiene.
Alternative therapies have also shown a lot of promise and have the added benefit of having no side effects.
Before turning to medication, try considering massage therapy, acupuncture, guided meditation, or biofeedback therapy to help you reestablish a healthy sleep routine.
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