Struggling with sleep? Insomnia Part 1

In the first of my 3-part series on Insomnia, I highlight the definition of insomnia and outline it’s symptoms and common causes. In parts 2 and 3 of the series, I will debunk some common myths about insomnia and discuss treatment options, respectively.

What is Insomnia?

If you have been struggling with sleep, you may be wondering if you have insomnia. Insomnia is a common sleep disorder that can make it difficult to fall asleep, stay asleep, or cause you to wake up too early and not be able to return to sleep. You may still feel tired when you wake up and/or experience daytime fatigue. Insomnia is a complicated condition that can negatively impact your energy level, mood, health, work performance, relationships, and quality of life.

 The National Institute of Health estimates that roughly 30 percent of the general population complains of sleep disruption, and approximately 10 percent have associated symptoms of daytime functional impairment consistent with the diagnosis of insomnia.

Symptoms

 Insomnia symptoms may include:

  • Difficulty falling asleep at night, waking up during the night, or waking up too early

  • Not feeling well-rested after a night's sleep

  • Daytime fatigue or sleepiness

  • Irritability, depression or anxiety

  • Difficulty paying attention, focusing on tasks or remembering

  • Increased errors or accidents

  • Ongoing worries about sleep

At some point, many adults experience short-term (acute) insomnia, which lasts for days or weeks at a time. Acute insomnia is usually the result of situational stress or a traumatic event. Many people may have experienced this type of passing sleep disruption, and it tends to resolve without any treatment. However, some people have long-term (chronic) insomnia that lasts for a month or more and is usually associated with ongoing stress, travel, work schedule, or bad habits that disrupt sleep. People with chronic insomnia may benefit from some form of treatment to help them get back to healthy sleep patterns.

Insomnia may be the primary problem, or it may be associated with other medical or psychiatric conditions or medications.

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 Causes

There are many causes of insomnia:

  • Stress. Concerns about work, school, health, finances or family can keep your mind active at night, making it difficult to sleep. Stressful life events or trauma — such as the death or illness of a loved one, divorce, or a job loss — also may lead to insomnia.

  • Caffeine, nicotine and alcohol. Coffee, tea, cola and other caffeinated drinks are stimulants. Drinking them in the late afternoon or evening can keep you from falling asleep at night. Nicotine in tobacco products is another stimulant that can interfere with sleep. Alcohol may help you fall asleep, but it prevents deeper stages of sleep and often causes awakening in the middle of the night.

  • Poor sleep habits. Poor sleep habits include an irregular bedtime schedule, naps, eating late in the evening, stimulating activities before bed, an uncomfortable sleep environment, and using your bed for work or watching television. Computers, TVs, video games, smart phones or other screens just before bed can interfere with your sleep cycle.

  • Travel or work schedule. Your circadian rhythms act as an internal clock, guiding such things as your sleep-wake cycle, metabolism and body temperature. Disrupting your body's circadian rhythms can lead to insomnia. Causes include jet lag from travelling across multiple time zones, working a late or early shift, or frequently changing shifts.

  • Sleep-related disorders. Sleep apnea causes you to stop breathing periodically throughout the night, interrupting your sleep. Restless legs syndrome causes unpleasant sensations in your legs and an almost irresistible desire to move them, which may prevent you from falling asleep.

  • Other conditions. Several mental health disorders and medical conditions may disrupt your sleep (e.g., anxiety, depression, chronic pain, cancer, heart disease, asthma, GERD, and Parkinson’s Disease, to name a few). Additionally, several prescription medications used to treat other conditions can also interfere with your sleep as they often contain caffeine and other stimulants that can disrupt sleep.

When to see a doctor

If you or someone you know is struggling with chronic insomnia, consult a doctor to help identify the cause of the sleep problem and how it can be treated. If the doctor thinks a sleep disorder is the cause, a referral to a sleep clinic for special testing and/or a Psychologist for treatment might be warranted.

Stay tuned for my next article when I discuss Insomnia Across the Lifespan.