Not all persons are so blessed as to shut their eyes for a few seconds and sink into a blissful abyss. Many persons are wide awake until early hours, twisting and turning, dreading waking up and functioning at an early hour the next day.
If this describes you or someone you know, insomnia may be the figurative monster underneath the bed keeping you (or them) awake at night.
It’s important for us to recognize what insomnia is, as well as how a lack of sleep affects our bodies on a day to day basis.
The term ‘insomnia’ is used to refer to a variety of sleeping disorders which affect sleep quality as well as sleep quantity.
There are three general classifications used to characterize insomnia: Transient Insomnia, where symptoms last up to three nights; Acute Insomnia, commonly known as short-term insomnia, where symptoms appear up to several weeks; and Chronic Insomnia, which lasts for months or even years. It is important to note that the last category is usually a side effect associated with other primary issues.
Insomnia can affect any individual in any age category, however, studies done regarding this topic show that adult females are more likely to be insomniacs as opposed to adult males.
Certain individuals may be more prone to insomnia such as: pregnant women, those who travel through time zones frequently, persons who use narcotics or even some prescription medication, adolescents and those who may work time shifts.
The effects of insomnia may range from daytime sleepiness, lethargy, and general feelings of being unwell both mentally and physically. It may also lead to mood swings, anxiety and irritability.
This disorder is usually caused by both psychological and physical disorders- chronic insomnia is usually caused by other main psychological diseases while transient insomnia can be caused by a change in circumstances.
This means that transient insomnia can be brought on by jet lag, a change in your working hours, moving to a higher altitude and extreme changes in temperature. Insomnia can also be caused by a plethora of medical conditions. These include strokes, heart conditions and fatigue syndromes.
The extent of the effects of the disorder varies with the different diseases and may affect each individual differently. Your hormones may also be blamed for your sleeplessness, as the presence or lack of estrogen, as well as the shifts experienced during menstruation have been linked to sleep disorders such as insomnia.
However, these are not the only factors; more common ones include your snoring partner, or the fact that you may be carrying a little one inside you who is awake all night. Sleeplessness, surprisingly enough, may be caused by genetics or even certain parasitic infections.
Less surprising, however, is the rise of studies showing that insomnia may be caused by the use of media devices until the wee hours of the morning. The light from these devices may affect sleeping patterns and have an adverse effect on the melatonin levels in the body and, as a result, affect the sleep patterns.
Symptoms of Insomnia are varied, but most
commonly they include:
- Difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep,
- Feeling tired and fatigued after a night’s sleep;
especially during daytime hours,
- The inability to focus and poor concentration levels,
- Tension headaches (which may feel like a constricting
band around the head),
- Gastrointestinal issues.
Sleep deprivation can affect your emotional state and mental abilities. Persons who are sleep deprived may be more irritable and prone to mood swings. This may lead to poor performance at work, as your creativity as well as your decision-making skills take a dive due to lack of proper rest
Severe sleep deprivation can trigger manic depression or even hallucinations in persons with underlying psychological conditions; leading to impulsive decisions, paranoia and even suicidal thoughts. This can also lead to an effect called ‘micro-sleep’- the body has no control over these episodes where it falls asleep for a few minutes. Micro-sleep can be extremely dangerous, especially where someone is driving – sleep deprivation may cause serious accidents.
Lack of a proper night’s rest can also negatively affect the way your body fights illness, as the immune system uses the time when you take your naps or long rests to produce infection fighting substances. This means that lack of sleep detrimentally affects your body’s ability to resist infections and fight them off.
Obesity may also be a common effect of lack of sleep. Sleep affects the levels of two hormones, leptin and ghrelin, which control feelings of hunger and fullness. Leptin tells your brain that you’ve had enough to eat.
Without enough sleep, your brain reduces leptin and raises ghrelin, which is an appetite stimulant. The flux of these hormones could explain nighttime snacking or why someone may overeat later in the night. A lack of sleep can also contribute to weight gain by making you feel too tired to exercise.
If you are experiencing these symptoms, it’s important that you seek help from a medical professional. Lack of sleep has a severely detrimental effect on both the mental and physical state.
Some types of insomnia resolve when the underlying cause is treated or wears off. In general, insomnia treatment focuses on determining the cause. Once identified, this underlying cause can be properly treated or corrected.
In addition to treating the underlying cause of insomnia, both medical and non-pharmacological (behavioural) treatments may be used as therapies. It must be stressed, however, that these should be recommended by a medical practitioner, as the type and underlying cause of insomnia may not always be clear based on the symptoms.
Some home tips to include:
- Improving “sleep hygiene” – not sleeping too much or too little, exercising daily, not forcing sleep, maintaining a regular sleep schedule, avoiding caffeine at night, avoiding smoking, avoiding going to bed hungry, and ensuring a comfortable sleeping environment.
- Using relaxation techniques – such as meditation and muscle relaxation. Some persons even use teas and essential oils to help them relax for bed. Chamomile tea or body washes formulated to promote relaxation are popular products on the market.
- Stimulus control therapy – only go to bed when sleepy. Avoid watching TV, reading, eating or worrying in bed. Set an alarm for the same time every morning (even weekends) and avoid long daytime naps.
- Sleep restriction – decrease the time spent in bed and partially deprive the body of sleep, this increases tiredness for the next night.
Medical or Therapeutic treatments for Insomnia include:
- Cognitive therapy – one-on-one counseling or group therapy
- Prescription sleeping pills
- Over-the-counter sleep aids
Insomnia is not something that we can take lightly, its effects are very real and can have long-lasting consequences on how we rest and replenish, sometimes even for the rest of our lives.
If you fear that you may be struggling with insomnia or another sleep disorder, make sure you consult a medical practitioner and ask their advice on how to banish your sleepless nights.