Insomnia Can Have Unhealthy Consequences
Insomnia means you have difficulty falling asleep, that you awaken during the night, or that you wake up too early. You also probably don’t feel rested when you wake up, and you may feel sleepy or tired during the day.
An occasional night of sleeplessness will not harm you. But having insomnia on a regular basis puts you at risk of depression and other mental health disorders. It can also cause or worsen other health conditions, such as heart disease. Sleeplessness carries over from nighttime to daytime, and can affect every aspect of your life, from work to relationships to health.
A public health issue
Insomnia is such a problem that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers it a public health issue. In a 2009 survey by CDC, between about 33% to 52% of Americans who reported having sleep problems admitted they unintentionally fell asleep during the day. As many as 7.2 percent said they had nodded off while driving in the previous month. More than one in five people (23.2 percent) with insomnia reported having problems with concentration, and 18.2 percent reported having memory difficulties.
The CDC reports that almost one-third of Americans report getting less than six hours of sleep a night, although the National Sleep Foundation recommends seven to nine hours of sleep a night for adults.
Insomnia may cause depression and anxiety, difficulty paying attention or focusing on tasks, increased errors or accidents, and tension headaches.
With insomnia, you may also experience:
- poor job or school performance
- slower reactions times during driving, causing accidents
- becoming overweight or obese
- poor immune system function
- a greater risk diseases such as high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes
You are more likely to suffer from insomnia if you are female, because of hormonal shifts that occur during the menstrual cycle. If you are menopausal, you may have insomnia from night sweats and hot flashes.
Age also plays a role
Sleep patterns change as you age, especial after age 60. Having a mental health diagnosis such as depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder interrupts your sleep as well.
If you are under a lot of stress, you are less likely to sleep soundly. Major life events such as the death of a loved one or being unemployed often lead to long-term insomnia.
Shift Workers at Greater Risk
Working nights or having changing shifts disturbs the body’s “circadian rhythms,” which are patterns of brain wave activity, hormone production, cell regeneration, and other necessary biological activities that naturally occur during sleep. This can lead to insomnia, and it can lead to health conditions such as heart disease. A Danish study found that 40 percent of shift workers had an increased risk of developing heart disease. Shift work also can worsen diseases such as diabetes and epilepsy.
Experts recommend strategies to ease these problems in shift workers such as limiting overtime and creating extra rest periods in order to help alleviate insomnia.
Frequent travel through different time zones can also create insomnia because of jet lag. This affects your biological clock, leading to sleep disruption. Ways to avoid jet lag include using light therapy during times when you’re usually awake, and blocking light with sunglasses or closing drapes in your bedroom when you are traveling during normal nighttime hours.
Treatment for insomnia includes cognitive behavior therapy, which focuses on examining the relationships between thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Ask your doctor about sleep medications, although they are usually not recommended long-term. If pain is keeping you awake, talk to your doctor about pain medication, physical therapy, or other remedies.
Strategies to help with insomnia include:
- Get out of bed when you’re not sleeping and do something relaxing, like read or watch TV.
- Use your bed and bedroom only for sleeping or sex.
- Create bedtime rituals, such as taking a warm bath.
- Avoid daytime naps, or limit them to no more than 30 minutes.
- Exercise regularly, but not close to bedtime.
- Avoid or limit caffeine, alcohol and nicotine.
- Do not eat large meals before bedtime.
- Ask your doctor about whether any of your medications may be causing your insomnia.
- Hide the alarm clock, because you sleep better when you don’t know what time it is.
For more information, contact the National Sleep Foundation.