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Insomnia

Not Sleeping? How Insomnia Can Affect Your Health

Definition of Insomnia

Humans spend approximately 1/3 of their lives asleep. Despite the vast body of research that has been devoted to the mechanics and purpose of sleep, scientists do not yet fully understand why sleep is necessary. What we do know is that we cannot do without it, and that sleep deprivation has a profound impact on both our physical and mental health.

When you do not get enough sleep, you feel drained of energy. Your work performance, your health, and even the quality of your life may be compromised. The inability to fall asleep or stay asleep is known as insomnia, and it is one of the most common of all health complaints.

The typical signs and symptoms of insomnia include the following:

  • Problems falling asleep;
  • Difficulty staying asleep at night, or awakening too early;
  • Feeling unrested after a night’s sleep;
  • Sleepiness or fatigue during the day;
  • Decreased ability to focus;
  • Increase in accidents or mistakes;
  • Irritability;
  • Anxiety or depression;
  • Gastrointestinal complaints;
  • Tension headaches;
  • Continual worry about sleep.

At least 30% of all people (including teenagers and children) experience insomnia from time to time, while 10% to 15% of individuals experience chronic insomnia. What causes this distressing condition, and what are the health consequences that may result from the inability to get enough sleep?

 

Causes of Insomnia

Insomnia is most often the result of an underlying physiological problem. There are a large number of possible factors which may contribute to difficulty sleeping:

General Sleep Deterrents

  • Emotional disorders – stress, anxiety, depression
  • Chronic pain
  • Restless leg syndrome
  • Sleep apnea
  • Side effects of medications
  • Smoking, recreational drugs, alcohol
  • Infections
  • Intestinal disturbance
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • Phase shift disorder (circadian rhythm disturbance)
  • Excessive noise
  • Restless sleep partner
  • Prostate problems, urinary frequency
  • Jet lag
  • Shift work

Hormonal & Neurotransmitter Problems

  • Low levels of melatonin
  • Neurotransmitter imbalances (including low serotonin or high epinephrine/norepinephrine)
  • Progesterone deficiency
  • Estrogen deficiency or excess
  • Adrenal deficiency
  • High levels of nighttime cortisol
  • Low DHEA
  • Low levels of growth hormone
  • Thyroid disorders

Nutritional Problems

  • Caffeine
  • Dietary deficiencies in the following:
    – Magnesium
    – Calcium
    – Iron
    – Vitamins B1, B5, B6
  • Excess levels of copper, chromium, vitamin D
  • Food Sensitivities
  • Alcoholism

Environmental Pollutants

  • Heavy metal poisoning
  • Mold exposure
  • Environmental illness

A range of tests can help you to identify which of these issues may be causing your insomnia. A knowledgeable health care professional can assist you with these lab tests:

By pinpointing the cause(s) of your insomnia, your health care provider will be better able to recommend a plan for treating and managing your sleep problems.

Risk Factors

Certain individuals may be at greater risk for developing the symptoms of insomnia. Women are more likely to suffer from insomnia due to hormonal fluctuations during menstruation and menopause; men and women over the age of 60 are also likely to experience changes in their sleep patterns. Those with a history of emotional disorders such as depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and bipolar disorder frequently experience sleep disruptions; stress, night work, or changing shifts at work can interfere with sleep patterns, as well.

Health Consequences of Insomnia

Lack of sufficient sleep can cause serious consequences for insomnia sufferers. There are both short-term and long-term complications that may occur when you do not get enough sleep.

Short Term Complications

  • Alertness and performance are impaired, leading to an increased risk of accidents and reduced performance at work or school.
  • Cognition and memory nay be impaired, leading to difficulty concentrating on a task and processing or remembering information.
  • Lethargy and fatigue can hamper your ability to participate in activities you enjoy.
  • Stress and conflict in relationships due to increased irritability, disruption of partner’s sleep.

Long Term Complications

  • Hypertension
  • Cardiovascular disease (stroke, heart attack, heart failure)
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Mood disorders
  • ADD/ADHD
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Fetal developmental disorders
  • Mental disability
  • Reduced quality of life

Solutions for Insomnia

Insomnia can have far-reaching health consequences if it is left untreated. Fortunately, by properly identifying the cause and developing an individualized plan for managing your condition, you can reverse the negative effects and enjoy a healthy and satisfying life.

Treating the underlying cause of your insomnia may include nutritional support with dietary sleep supplements, exercise, detoxification, and relaxation techniques such as meditation and breathing exercises. Cognitive therapy may be useful to some patients who have mood disorders at the root of their sleep problems. Light therapy can be helpful for individuals who suffer from a phase shift disorder.

  • Follow a consistent sleep schedule, with a regular bedtime and wake-up time.
  • Avoid exposure to light while in bed.
  • Avoid bright lights, television, and computers for at least 2 hours before bedtime.
  • Avoid oversleeping.
  • Replace your mattress, bedding, and sleepwear if they are not comfortable.
  • Avoid napping during the day.
  • Do not exercise within 3 hours of bedtime.
  • Keep your bedroom cool, dark and quiet.
  • Use your bedroom as a bedroom – do not watch TV or use the computer in the room set aside for sleeping.
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and smoking, especially before bedtime.
  • If you can’t sleep, leave the bedroom and find something quiet and relaxing to do.
  • Try doing a relaxation exercise.
  • Avoid drinking excessive fluids before bedtime to prevent the urge to urinate.
  • Don’t eat right before bedtime; this can make you feel full and uncomfortable, and it increases the risk of heartburn.
  • Avoid clock-watching – try not to keep a clock near your bed.

Prescription and over the counter sleep medications may help you get to sleep initially, but they also reduce the quality of your sleep and may have unpleasant side effects. There is also a risk of becoming dependent on sleep aids, and it is best to avoid them if possible.

Most of all, try not to worry persistently about your inability to sleep. The stress of constant worry can itself prevent you from sleeping, resulting in a cycle of insomnia.

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