Most of us have experienced the frustration of a sleepless night. Whether it’s tossing and turning, lying still with racing thoughts, or burying our faces in pillows to no avail, failing to get the proper amount of sleep can be devastating for our wellness and productivity. But even though everyone has the occasional hard time catching Z’s, continuous problems under the sheets could be a far more sinister sleep syndrome: insomnia.
An ongoing lack of sleep caused by insomnia can lead to serious problems in daily life, especially if the period of insomnia lasts more than a few days.
Educating yourself on the causes, symptoms, and treatments for insomnia is an important first step to reclaiming healthy sleep patterns.
What exactly is insomnia?
Most people know insomnia means not being able to get to sleep. But it’s actually a bit more complicated than that.
According to the Mayo Clinic, insomnia refers to short-term (acute) or long-term (chronic) problems falling asleep, staying asleep, and waking up too early. All of these types of sleep disruption interfere with your ability to get the recommended 7 hours of sleep per night, causing feelings of mild to extreme tiredness among other complications. Insomnia is incredibly common, affecting almost one in three adults across the world population according to some studies.
What causes insomnia?
The factors that cause insomnia vary. It can sometimes arise as a condition on its own, but more is more usually a symptom of other issues facing a patient.
Some of the most common triggers of insomnia are:
- General stress
- Chronic pain
- Mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety
- Neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease
- High blood pressure
- A traumatic event causing psychic distress
- Acid reflux and other gastrointestinal ailments
Many medications taken for common conditions like colds, asthma, depression, and thyroid disease can also cause insomnia as a side effect. Birth control medication has been known to trigger insomnia as well.
Additionally, insomnia is also linked to other sleep disorders.
Restless leg syndrome, characterized by the urge to move the legs in order to relieve discomfort, often intensifies at night and causes insomnia when patients continuously shift in bed. Sleep apnea, a much more serious condition relating to the respiratory system where breathing repeatedly stops and starts in the night, is also a known cause of insomnia.
What are the symptoms?
As is noted above, insomnia refers to several general patterns of sleep disruption that can interfere with a normal sleep cycle. Acute insomnia lasts for days or weeks, while chronic insomnia can last for months or even years. Whether acute or chronic, the effects can be devastating in one’s personal and professional life. The Mayo Clinic lists the symptoms of insomnia as follows:
- Trouble falling asleep at night (Read our 8 tips for better sleep)
- Waking up during the night
- Waking up too early
- Not feeling well-rested after a night’s sleep
- Daytime tiredness or sleepiness
- Irritability, depression or anxiety
- Difficulty paying attention, focusing on tasks or remembering
- Increased errors or accidents
- Ongoing worries about sleep
Symptoms generally worsen the longer the period of insomnia lasts. This makes chronic insomnia an especially troublesome condition to deal with.
How to cure insomnia?
Because there are many forms, there is no silver bullet for treating the disorder. Depending on the severity of a patient, there are many different methods for achieving healthy sleep patterns. The most important key to treating insomnia is addressing the underlying cause of the condition.
With that being said, there are several treatment methods that don’t necessarily involve medications.
Making adjustments to your daily habits, rituals, and patterns can help you optimize your chances of getting good sleep. Some simple changes include
- Limiting caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol intake, especially in the afternoon and evening
- Exercising daily, though not too late in the evening
- Not eating full meals close to bedtime
- Daily meditation in the evening
Sleep Cycle Changes
Fundamentally changing your sleep habits can also be effective in achieving better sleep. Some of those changes could include
- Attempting to stay on a regular sleep schedule helps your circadian system in sync (going to bed and waking at the same time every day)
- Limiting exposure to electronic screens and light in the evening, especially when in bed.
- Using the bedroom for sleeping and sex only (no working on the computer from bed)
- Avoiding long naps during the day
If symptoms persist after healthy changes to sleep cycles and lifestyle are implemented, you may want to consider seeing a therapist to help with your insomnia. Since the causes of insomnia are often times psychological, therapists have developed several treatments aimed at higher risk individuals that address the thought patterns and consequent actions that lead to poor sleep.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CDT-I) helps patients develop healthy patterns for sleep using a variety of specialized components based on individual needs. These components can include
- Sleep restriction therapy
- Stimulus control therapy
- Relaxation therapy / deep relaxation strategies
If all else fails, there are medications that can temporarily help fight the condition. These medications are often less effective than CDT-I in the long term, and can also carry unwanted side effects. It is always recommended that you speak to your doctor before taking any new medication.
Some of the most common over-the-counter sleep medications include
- Valerian root
- Diphenhydramine (the active ingredient in Benadryl)
- Doxylamine succinate (the active ingredient in Unisom)
Your doctor may also prescribe certain medications for insomnia if she or he feels that it is appropriate. Often times doctors will recommend making changes to your daily habits before they recommend this path. When they do, some of the most commonly prescribed drugs include
- Antidepressants, which often help treat underlying issues of anxiety or depression
- Zolpidem (the active ingredient in Ambien)
- Zaleplon (the active ingredient in Sonata)
- Eszopiclone (the active ingredient in Lunesta)
- Doxepin (the active ingredient in Silenor)