An Insider’s Guide to Understanding Insomnia

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Insomnia is a disorder in which a person cannot get adequate or quality sleep.  People suffering with insomnia may experience difficulty falling asleep, waking up frequently during sleep, difficulty returning to sleep and unrefreshed sleep. Some symptoms of a sleep disorder can include:

  • Insomnia
  • Daytime sleepiness
  • Morning headaches
  • Constant leg movement
  • Gasping episodes at night
  • Overweight/obesity
  • Hypertension
  • Loud snoring
  • Dry mouth, sore throat
  • Forgetfulness
  • Loss of energy

What Causes Insomnia?

Insomnia can be caused by psychiatric and medical conditions, unhealthy sleep habits, specific substances, and/or certain biological factors. Recently, researchers have begun to think about insomnia as a problem of your brain being unable to stop being awake (your brain has a sleep cycle and a wake cycle—when one is turned on the other is turned off—insomnia can be a problem with either part of this cycle: too much wake drive or too little sleep drive). It’s important to first understand what could be causing your sleep difficulties.

There are many medical conditions (some mild and others more serious) that can lead to insomnia. In some cases, a medical condition itself causes insomnia, while in other cases, symptoms of the condition cause discomfort that can make it difficult for a person to sleep.

Insomnia & Lifestyle

Insomnia can be triggered or perpetuated by your behaviors and sleep patterns. Unhealthy lifestyles and sleep habits can create insomnia on their own (without any underlying psychiatric or medical problem), or they can make insomnia caused by another problem worse.

Examples of how specific lifestyles and sleep habits can lead to insomnia are:

  • You work at home in the evenings. This can make it hard to unwind, and it can also make you feel preoccupied when it comes time to sleep. The light from your computer could also make your brain more alert.
  • You take naps (even if they are short) in the afternoon. Short naps can be helpful for some people, but for others, they make it difficult to fall asleep at night.
  • You sometimes sleep in later to make up for lost sleep. This can confuse your body’s clock and make it difficult to fall asleep again the following night.
  • You are a shift worker (meaning that you work irregular hours). Non-traditional hours can confuse your body’s clock, especially if you are trying to sleep during the day, or if your schedule changes periodically.

Some cases of insomnia start out with an acute episode but turn into a longer-term problem. For example, let’s say a person can’t sleep for a night or two after receiving bad news. In this case, if the person starts to adopt unhealthy sleep habits such as getting up in the middle of the night to work, or drinking alcohol before bed to compensate, the insomnia can continue and potentially turn into a more serious problem. Instead of passing, it can become chronic.

It’s important to address insomnia instead of letting it become a regular part of your life. If lifestyle and unhealthy sleep habits are the cause of insomnia, there are things that can help. If you have tried to change your sleep behaviors and it hasn’t worked, it’s important to take this seriously and talk to your doctor.

Insomnia & The Brain

In some cases, insomnia may be caused by certain neurotransmitters in the brain that are known to be involved with sleep and wakefulness.

There are many possible chemical interactions in the brain that could interfere with sleep and may explain why some people are biologically prone to insomnia and seem to struggle with sleep for many years without any identifiable cause—even when they follow healthy sleep advice. Contact us if you have any question or to schedule an appointment.

(Some information provided by the National Sleep Foundation).

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