At some point, we've all experienced at least a few nights of too little, or restless sleep. Many of us are familiar with the consequences of one or more sleepless nights: sluggishness, poor concentration, irritability, changes in appetite, etc. For the majority of cases, it takes just a day or two to catch up on restorative sleep. Yet for up to half of the population, lack of sleep can turn into a more serious problem: insomnia.
While experts may disagree over the exact definition, insomnia is typically characterized by the duration of symptoms, not the specific amount of sleep one gets. Individuals may have vastly different sleep practices and require different amounts of sleep - but true insomnia usually involves difficulty initiating or maintaining sleep for at least one week or more.
Even more troublesome, the causes of insomnia remain a mystery for many sufferers. It's not a disease in and of itself – it's a symptom of another underlying problem. Therefore, the key to treating insomnia involves unearthing the root cause.
The main causes for insomnia can be broken up into 3 different categories:
- Medical or psychiatric
- Primary sleep disorders
Primary sleep disorders are much less common but include conditions such as narcolepsy, sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome. These are physical-neurological dysfunctions that need to be treated under a doctor's care and may require medication. Yet for the vast majority of insomnia sufferers, environmental and common medical problems are the source of the problem.
That means there are simple lifestyle changes you can make in your daily routine that may dramatically improve the amount and quality of sleep you get each night. Common insomnia triggers include stress, depression, certain medications (e.g. beta blockers, anti-histamines or anti-depressants), caffeine, alcohol, shift work and underlying health problems. These factors can all impact our ability to fall or stay asleep. Insomnia is also more likely to strike women and older individuals due to hormonal changes and shifting sleep patterns.
Sleep medications may be helpful for some insomnia sufferers, but before you reach for the pills, consider some easy tips for better sleeping:
- Evaluate your sleep hygiene: Avoid watching TV, eating, or working in bed. Make the bedroom a sanctuary for sleep. Keep the temperature a few degrees cooler than the rest of the house and hide bedroom clocks so you're not constantly checking the time as you try to fall asleep. Try sticking to a sleep schedule and limiting naps or daytime sleeping.
- Get active: Thirty minutes of exercise each day (at least 5 to 6 hours before bedtime) will help you get more restful sleep at night.
- Avoid triggers: Caffeine, alcohol and nicotine or large meals before bedtime can disrupt your ability to fall asleep and remain asleep throughout the night. Though many people use alcohol to get to sleep initially – alcohol actually compromises the quality of sleep you get overnight.
- Check your medication: Make sure they don't contain stimulants. Talk to your doctor about other options if you think your prescriptions are preventing you from getting good sleep.
Stressful life events also commonly trigger insomnia. If you think anxiety is the underlying problem behind your insomnia, relaxation techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation, biofeedback and deep breathing exercises may be helpful techniques to fight off tension at bedtime. Click here to read about several of these alternative techniques. Whatever the cause, insomnia can have devastating consequences on your health and quality of life, and the key to relief is resolving the underlying cause.