Insomnia is the most prevalent sleep disorder in the United States, affecting between thirty to fifty percent of Americans at some time in their lives. Chronic insomnia, that which lasts for more than three weeks, is estimated to affect nearly ten percent of the population.
Insomnia affects all age groups from childhood insomnia, known as idiopathic insomnia, to teens and adults. Women are generally more affected by insomnia than men, and certain groups of people, most notably shift workers, are at a higher risk for developing the disorder.
Insomnia is broken down into three categories. Transient insomnia typically lasts for less than a week, short term insomnia lasts 21 days or less, and any insomnia lasting more three weeks is called chronic insomnia.
Sleeping problems associated with insomnia
Insomnia covers a wide range of sleeping problems. Some people suffering the disorder have frequent wakings that disturb their sleep, have difficulty falling asleep, or wake very early in the morning, unable to return to sleep. Others may not feel rested even after an apparently full night of sleep. Insomnia by itself is very seldom a disease process; it is a symptom of an underlying psychological or physical problem.
Physical causes of insomnia can be medication side effects, shift work sleep disorder, jet lag, pain, fever or illness, breathing disorders, restless leg syndrome, or sleep apnea. Room temperature and sleep habits in general, known as sleep hygiene, fall under this category. Some of these causes of insomnia can be reversed by being aware of and changing poor sleeping habits.
The psychological causes of insomnia include stress, generalized depression, anxiety, and some mental health issues like bipolar disorder or manic depressive states. Medication to treat an underlying psychological disorder can help in some cases of insomnia.
Insomnia can be worsened by attempts to self-medicate. Alcohol, for instance, will cause restless sleep patterns and some sleeping medications can cause dependency and feelings of drowsiness that last throughout the waking day. Some use antihistamines for their sleep-inducing properties, but these have no benefits for long term usage.
Insomnia affects more than a good night’s sleep. Sleep deprivation can cause poor judgment, slowing of reflexes, irritability, lack of focus and memory disturbances. It can affect job performance, home life, and social interactions. Since sleep deprivation can cause impaired coordination and reflexes, accidents involving vehicles or even daily chores and activities are common.
If insomnia lasts for more than three weeks, a doctor’s visit may be helpful in treating the disorder. There are medications that can be taken that will cause drowsiness and ensure quality sleep. Some medications will reduce stress or anxiety prior to sleep while others will induce sleep itself. Medications are often used in partnership with a sleep modification program to address poor sleep hygiene and sleeping habits.
Sleep hygiene consists of individual habits before and during bedtime. Bad sleep hygiene could include trying to sleep in a room that is too cold or too bright, sleeping with the TV on, or drinking alcohol or coffee within a few hours of bedtime. Setting a rigid sleep schedule and adhering to specific bedtime and wake-up times are helpful ways to improve sleep hygiene.
The doctor will most likely have the patient fill out a sleep log assessing his wakefulness during the day as well as his sleep disruptions at night. If no easily recognized and correctable reasons are found in the sleep log, more advanced diagnostic tests can be performed. An actigraph is a small device worn at bedtime that records the amount of physical activity that occurs during sleep, such as restless leg syndrome. A physician will also seek to find other physical causes, such as sleep apnea, through a sleep study.
Some herbal supplements have been shown to be helpful in attaining sleep, such as Valarian root and melatonin. Others, such as kava kava, St John’s Wort and tryptophan may not be as effective. Always get a doctor’s advice before trying any herbal therapies to treat insomnia.
Hypnotherapy, aromatherapy and relaxation techniques are alternative therapies that can be explored to treat insomnia. It is important to remember that chronic insomnia is seldom a stand-alone disorder, however, so be sure to get a doctor’s clean bill of health first. Alternative therapies are most beneficial for short term and transient insomnia.
Insomnia, while a distressing disorder, can be effectively treated by a combination of improved sleeping habits and medications from a doctor. If you suspect you have a form of insomnia, start a sleep journal and seek medical help from your doctor.