We’ve all had one of those nights. Trouble falling asleep, lying in bed awake for hours, or waking in the middle of the night, unable to fall back to sleep. Nights like these aren’t uncommon once in a while, but when are they the sign of a larger problem? If you’re struggling to sleep three or more days of the week, you may be suffering from insomnia.
Insomnia is the most common sleep disorders according to the American Psychiatric Association, impacting about one-third of all adults in the United States.
There are three main types of insomnia:
- Short-term, or acute insomnia, is commonly caused by stress, changes to your sleep habits (like sleeping in a hotel or jet lag), physical pain or new medications.
- Prolonged insomnia lasting three months or more is known as chronic insomnia.
- Chronic insomnia can be primary, with no known underlying cause, or secondary, which occurs in tandem with other conditions such as chronic pain, anxiety, depression, or sleep apnea.
Inability to fall or stay asleep isn’t the only symptom of insomnia. Other symptoms include:
- Waking feeling unrested
- Feeling tired or fatigued during the day
- Concentration problems
Risk Factors for Insomnia
While insomnia may arise from an underlying problem, health condition or life event, some people are more susceptible than others:
- Women: According to the Sleep Foundation, women are more likely to suffer from insomnia over men due to hormonal changes caused by premenstrual syndrome, pregnancy, or menopause.
- People over the age of 65: age-related bodily changes, underlying medical concerns and common medications for conditions like heart disease and high blood pressure can make it difficult to fall or stay asleep.
- Covid-19 survivors: a new study from Oxford University found that one in three people who survived Covid-19 are diagnosed with a neurological or psychiatric condition, including insomnia, within six months of being infected.
- Those living an unhealthy lifestyle: while enjoyable and sometimes oh so necessary, the Sleep Foundation suggests grabbing that extra cup of coffee in the afternoon or enjoying a nightcap before bed could be hindering your ability to get a good night’s sleep. Smoking, keeping an irregular schedule, and even working out too close to bedtime can also cause insomnia.
If you’re only dealing with the occasional sleepless night, small changes can make a big difference. In addition to avoiding stimulants such as caffeine, alcohol, work, or exercise too close to bedtime, consider picking up a book and putting the phone down to avoid complications sparked by blue light.
Your sleep environment is also extremely important. We’re all guilty of falling asleep to the TV or turning up the heat a little too high sometimes, but a dark, cool space is most conducive to sleep.
One of the most common factors behind insomnia is stress, and lack of proper sleep can cause even more stress. It’s a vicious cycle. Take an honest moment to reflect on how to better manage your stress during the day. Daily exercise, meditation, reading and listening to calming music are all proven ways to manage stress and improve sleep.
When to Seek Professional Help
Sometimes lifestyle changes just aren’t enough. If you find yourself struggling to sleep three or more nights a week for a prolonged period, it’s time to call your doctor. Treatment typically begins with a conversation and assessment of your sleep habits. If the cause of your insomnia isn’t immediately clear, your doctor will likely initiate a sleep study to monitor and record your brain and body activity during sleep.
Once the underlying cause of your insomnia is determined, you and your physician can have an informed conversation around treatment options. These can vary from cognitive behavioral therapy, over the counter or prescribed medication, light therapy and more. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach and typically a little wiggle room for trial and error is needed.
The Bottom Line
Prolonged sleep deprivation can have significant health implications including high blood pressure, increased risk for diabetes, heart disease and sleep apnea. Also, let’s be real. Tossing and turning and waking up tired is no fun for anyone. If you’re suffering from insomnia, try making small lifestyle changes and if the problem persists, give your doctor a call.