What Is Insomnia and How To Deal With It
30th Oct 2020
Nothing ruins a good day from the very start like not getting enough sleep the night before. I think we’ve all experienced this!
Not getting enough sleep can make it difficult to concentrate, dull your reflexes, and stomp all over your mood. Not a good beginning to a new morning!
But does sleeplessness mean that you’ve got insomnia? What is insomnia, anyway?
We’ll discuss the different types of insomnia, some signs and symptoms (it’s more than just staring at the ceiling at night), and give some tips on how to deal with it!
What Is Insomnia?
Insomnia is one of the more common sleep disorders, and affects more than 35% of adults. Yep! That means you’ve most likely had an experience with it before.
People who suffer from insomnia may find that they have difficulty getting to sleep and staying asleep for as long as they’d like to. Insomnia may even cause you to wake up hours earlier than your alarm, and you won’t be able to get back to sleep.
It can leave you feeling tired all day long, as well as affect your mood, health, and have an impact on your work performance.
While the amount of sleep a person needs will vary, most adults need at least seven to eight hours every night. If you aren’t getting that, your days are likely to be more difficult than they should.
Insomnia affects almost everybody at some stage or another. A bout of insomnia could last for a couple of days or a few weeks. This is known as short-term (acute) insomnia, and happens to everyone at some point.
But there are also people who experience long-term insomnia. This is when it becomes more problematic and has much more far-reaching consequences.
Types of Insomnia
No two cases of insomnia will be identical. This is partly due to the fact that there are different types of insomnia, but also because every person is unique!
If you’re wondering about your own insomnia, knowing some of the causes may help both yourself and health professionals distinguish which type you have.
Acute insomnia, also known as adjustment insomnia, can last for a couple of days up to a few weeks. A person may experience this form insomnia for a few reasons, such as:
- Sleeping in an unfamiliar or new environment
- Stress and anxiety
- Relocation to a new place
- Work deadlines
- Jet lag after traveling
- Death of a loved one
- Relationship difficulties
- The room is either too hot or too cold
- Allergies that flare up at night
- Physical pain or discomfort
- Excessive noise and light at night
Onset insomnia is where you battle to fall asleep. Ever find yourself lying in bed staring at the ceiling for what seems like hours? That’s it!
This type of insomnia can last for a few days, although without making changes to your lifestyle it could become chronic insomnia. This type of insomnia can be caused by:
- Stress and anxiety
- Too much nicotine or caffeine
- Sleeping in new environments often
- Large meals before bedtime
- Poor sleep hygiene
- A noisy environment
If a person has been experiencing insomnia for approximately three weeks to a month, then it could be considered to be chronic insomnia.
If you’re experiencing episodes of insomnia for at least three nights out of a week for a month, you may want to see your doctor. They’d be able to dig deeper and diagnose if your insomnia is Primary or Secondary (which we’ll discuss below).
Chronic insomnia can be caused by the following:
- Shift work rotation
- Jet lag
- Lack of a sleep routine
- Respiratory conditions like asthma or sleep apnea
- Restless leg syndrome
- Stress and anxiety
- Pain and discomfort
- Stimulant laxatives
Primary insomnia isn’t linked directly to any health problem, but can be triggered by any one of the following:
- Extreme stress
- Emotional upset
- Shift work or varying work schedules
- Improper sleep routine
A person can also develop primary insomnia by worrying about sleep or even taking frequent naps! Anything that can throw your usual sleep schedule off can be a trigger.
Secondary insomnia is a symptom or a side effect of an underlying health problems, such as:
- Neurological issues
- Medical conditions
- Sleep disorders, like sleep apnea
- Emotional disorders like posttraumatic stress, anxiety or depression
Symptoms of Insomnia
Common symptoms of insomnia - that is, those that have been reported by people who are experiencing insomnia - shouldn’t be ignored or dismissed as being simply stress or work pressure.
The APA has stated that one-third of adults will report experiencing insomnia symptoms, of which 6 to 10% will have symptoms so severe that they’re diagnosed with a sleeping disorder.
Don’t wait for acute or onset to become chronic insomnia before seeking help! If you’re experiencing sleep difficulties at least three times a week for a month, see your doc to get a head start on anything that may be lurking.
Keep a sleep diary and monitor how you feel during the day, how much caffeine you ingest, and any of the possible insomnia symptoms below:
- You can’t fall asleep when you go to bed
- Waking up during the night or earlier than you should and can’t get back to sleep
- Feeling fatigued or wanting to sleep during the day
- Not feeling well-rested after a night's sleep
- Finding it difficult to pay attention or focus on tasks
- Moodiness, irritability, aggression, or anxiety
- You may be more clumsy or lack coordination, which leads to accidents
- You could experience frequent tension headaches
- Gastrointestinal symptoms
- Low energy levels
- Higher levels of stress and anxiety
- You begin to worry about not sleeping
If your sleep problems are severe enough for you to keep track of your symptoms and how you’re feeling, you may want to have a look at the following and see if there are external factors that could be contributing.
Your Sleep Environment
It’s a good idea to have a look for disruptive factors in the bedroom that can cause bad sleep.
This may be something as simple as having too much light coming in at night. Is there a lot of outside noise, such as passing cars or trains that could wake you up?
Extreme temperatures can also interfere with your sleep. If your room is too hot, consider getting an air conditioner unit or fan to help cool the room down. If it’s too cold, add another blanket or put the heater on for a while.
Does your partner toss and turn all night or is their snoring disrupting your sleep at night? These are also factors to consider that could be contributing to your insomnia.
If you feel that these could be the cause, you could try using a deep sleep music app that would drown out the external sounds (including your partner’s snoring).
Bedphones, noise-canceling headphones, and a sleep mask could all be helpful!
Schedule or Environmental Changes
If you’ve moved into a new home, got a new night shift job, or if you travel for work and you’re in a different time zone, these changes can interrupt your circadian rhythms and disrupt your sleep.
What happens in these cases is that your internal clock is out of sync with the environment.
Your body will want to start the sleep process when everyone else is having breakfast, leaving you exhausted. Or, you may be heading off to work around the time your body usually settles down to rest.
In most cases, your body will adjust and it will go back to its natural circadian rhythms after a few days.
Unlike people who travel, shift workers experience sleep disruptions over a longer term, which can lead to chronic insomnia and have other physiological implications. Shift workers have to adapt to sleeping during the day and being awake at night, which is a challenge as the circadian alerting system is at its lowest at night.
Having to switch from day shift to night shift constantly (like emergency services personnel, for example) means that the body is constantly trying to adapt to different sleeping patterns, which can lead to chronic insomnia.
If this is something you struggle with, sticking to a strict sleep schedule despite your changing shifts can help, as well as making sure there are no disruptions when you do rest.
Insomnia can be a symptom of a medical condition, or it can be an effect of a medical symptom, such as being in pain, gastroesophageal reflux disease, diabetes or even an overactive thyroid.
Some medications used to treat colds and flu, allergies, high blood pressure, asthma and allergies, could be the reason why a person is experiencing unexpected insomnia.
It’s always better to see a doctor if the insomnia persists, so you can rule out any medical conditions that could have a serious impact on your health.
If your doctor does happen to find an underlying medical cause for your insomnia, they’ll be able to put you onto a treatment plan to help you get back into a proper sleep routine.
If you find there’s no cause for concern medically, then you know you need to make some lifestyle changes to improve your sleep!
Who Is At High Risk of Insomnia?
Anyone can experience insomnia! But people who have irregular sleep patterns, who travel frequently to different time zones, and shift workers are at higher risk for developing sleep problems.
Those who could be at a high risk of developing insomnia include:
- “Night owls” who doesn’t have a proper sleep routine or regular wake-up time
- Those who describe themselves as a “worrier”
- People who don’t relax at the end of the day and are highly stressed
- Anyone who’s been diagnosed with a sleep disorder, like sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome
Insomnia affects women more than men. This could be due to hormonal shifts when a woman is pregnant, on her period, experiencing menopause, or going through premenstrual syndrome (otherwise known as the dreaded PMS).
A study showed that one out of four women had symptoms of insomnia! Ladies, be aware!
Another group more at risk are people over the age of 60. As we age, we don’t get as much deep sleep as we did when we were younger. Also, with age comes medical conditions that may require us to take medication for.
Our circadian rhythms change, as well. Our bodies want to get to bed earlier, which wakes us up earlier in the morning. Often, once you’re a wake, you won’t be able to fall asleep again.
How To Deal With Insomnia
There is no single way to deal with insomnia. What works for one person won’t work for the next, and environment and circumstances also have a lot to do with it.
It’s always a good idea to consult with your doctor. This will help to eliminate the possibility of underlying issues.
Your doctor would also be able to identify what type of insomnia you have. From there, they could either suggest making lifestyle changes, or prescribe a sleeping pill to help you sleep. In extreme cases, behavioral therapy could help.
Insomnia is different for everyone. Although there’s no specific treatment, you can try and incorporate the following suggestions to alleviate your symptoms.
They may not fix it entirely, but they should help to decrease your chances of sleeplessness and improve the quality of your sleep!
Set A Sleep Schedule
Start by setting a time to go to bed and a time you’re going to get up. Ensure that you get at least 7 hours of sleep!
In order for this to actually help, you need to maintain a consistent sleep schedule. This means you need to go to bed and get up at the same time every day. This includes weekends and when you’re on vacation!
Turn off all electronic devices at least an hour before your bedtime. This will help quieten your mind and signal the brain that it’s time to go to sleep. Make sure that your room is at a comfortable temperature so your sleep won’t be disrupted.
Try not to drink caffeinated drinks for at least 4 hours before your bedtime. Caffeine stimulates the brain, keeping it alert and making it harder for you to fall asleep.
If you aren’t ingesting caffeine but you're taking medication, check if they contain caffeine. Many over-the-counter cold medications, painkillers and allergy medications, contain it!
If you’re worried about any of your medication containing caffeine, consult with your doctor and see if they can prescribe something caffeine-free.
Avoid Late-Night Eating
Try and eat your meals earlier in the evenings, at least 4 to 5 hours before your set bedtime. This gives your body a chance to digest the food before you go to sleep, and you won’t be woken up with indigestion or heartburn.
Have a light meal in the evening and try to avoid spicy foods. Meals that are seasoned with chilies, cayenne, garlic and similar spices can lead to digestive upset that can wake you up!
Eat your food slowly at night, too. Hurried eating can cause you to swallow air, creating abdominal discomfort, which can disrupt your sleep as well.
Exercising regularly helps to reduce stress and anxiety while promoting relaxation, which helps you to sleep better.
The best time to exercise (to help your insomnia) is in the early afternoon or evening. Working out raises your core body temperature. When it starts to come back down to normal, you’ll feel drowsy. This can help you fall asleep easier!
A recent study showed that people who exercised 2 hours before bedtime had no sleep disturbances. But those who exercised 4 hours before bedtime reported noticeably improved sleep!
It’s up to you, but if you’re going to exercise in the evening try to finish your workout at least 90 minutes before your bedtime. This will give your body time to start winding down.
Create a Relaxing Bedtime Routine
Create your own soothing nightly ritual that will help you fall asleep and stay asleep. Try:
- Turning the lights down low in the bedroom. This will help signal the brain that it’s time to sleep.
- Having a warm bath. This can be a great way to lull you to sleep, as the warm water helps to relax tired and stiff muscles.
- Meditating before you go to bed. Deep breathing exercises will help quieten the mind, which can help you fall asleep faster.
- Cuddle up with a book in bed. You may think this would stimulate the brain and keep you awake. But the truth is, it can actually help you fall asleep as the muscles around the eyes get tired, which will make them want to close.
Insomnia can be debilitating, but the good news is that there are ways to encourage better sleeping habits!
If you suffer from insomnia in any of its forms, figuring out the root cause should be your first priority. Often, fixing that will bring on the sleep!
Once you’ve understood what’s behind your insomnia, you can begin to treat it and hopefully improve the symptoms. Remember, good sleep hygiene is extremely underrated, and simply fixing your bedtime habits and routine can have huge positive effects!
If you’re still struggling with it after all of that, then it may be worth seeing your doc to rule out any underlying medical reasons.
Why not implement some of these tips tonight and see if you get a better night’s rest?