Most of us have experienced a few nights when we’re tossing and turning in bed, glancing at the alarm clock and calculating how much time we’d have left to sleep if only we’d manage to drift off.
The next day you feel cranky and groggy, you can’t focus on anything, you have trouble remembering things from one moment to the other and everything gets on your nerves. You get the feeling that people are doing it on purpose, just to make your day even harder to get through.
About 15% of adults will develop chronic insomnia throughout their lives, the condition being more prevalent among women and the risk increases with age. Insomnia is also quite common among teenagers because the hormonal changes they go through lead to alterations in the circadian rhythm and melatonin production which makes them get sleepy later in the evening than adults.
Acute vs Chronic insomnia
Acute insomnia refers to difficulty falling or staying asleep for a shorter period of time, and, most often, it’s associated with some sort of extrinsic triggers such as life events that cause an unusual amount of stress (changing jobs, divorce, illness in the family). In such circumstances, it’s normal to have trouble sleeping because you’ll have a tendency to ruminate on what’s happening, trying to find solutions which will make it harder to achieve the state of relaxation conducive to good quality sleep.
Simply sleeping in an unfamiliar environment such as a hotel room will keep your brain alert to potential threats and you’ll find you don’t feel as rested as you would at home.
Chronic insomnia, on the other hand, presupposes a longer period of sleep disruption – three or more nights per week over at least three months. If you’ve reached this stage it’s important that you consult a doctor and try to at least make a few lifestyle changes, as it doesn’t take long for sleep deprivation to start having a negative impact on your health.
The initial symptoms of sleep deprivation are very similar to those caused by depression, anxiety and manic phases such as the ones linked to bipolar disorder. This is the reason why psychiatrists will first address the sleep disturbance. They’re trying to see if insomnia is causing the symptoms or it’s a consequence of another condition.
Causes for Insomnia
Insomnia can be caused by both physical and psychological factors. Like we mentioned before, transient or acute insomnia tends to be linked to a recent occurrence or change in environment, while chronic insomnia is more often caused by an underlying medical condition. If you fall under the category of chronic insomnia, your doctor might refer you to a sleep center for additional testing.
Stress causes hormonal changes which put the body in a state of hyperarousal. You’ll experience it during the day as well – when you feel tense, restless, on edge – but at night, this state of hyperarousal will be even more problematic.
Numerous studies have shown that students attending schools with high academic standards and individuals working or living in stressful environments report more episodes of insomnia.
Most of us are already familiar with bedtimes rules from our childhoods when our parents would make us go to bed early so we’d get used to a schedule and they could have some peace and quiet. Once we’re on our own we tend to ditch the rules and stay up late at night and only go to sleep early when we’re especially tired.
With that being said, studies show it’s better to stick to the same bedtime rules as adults. “Why?” you may ask.
Your circadian rhythm (internal clock) is crucial to regulating your sleep-wake cycle as it’s linked to melatonin production. Melatonin is produced by the pineal gland and it takes its cues mostly from how much light there is in your environment, but also from having a regular schedule.
If you regularly go to sleep at 11 p.m., for example, your pituitary gland will start secreting melatonin at about 9 or 10 p.m. and you’ll start to feel sleepy. It doesn’t have a long half-life and that’s why you should have a relaxing routine before bedtime. It’s better to take a bath or journal about one hour before bed, rather than watch a movie on your laptop or scroll through your social media, as the blue light emitted by the screen will disrupt this process.
Inadequate Sleeping Environment
It’s not just the presence of light that can affect the quality of your sleep. Anything that would make you uncomfortable will have a negative impact of the duration and restfulness of your sleep. If your bedroom is too noisy, too hot, too cold, your mattress is uncomfortable, or you don’t have enough room to move, it can keep you from getting enough rest.
Think of your bedroom as a haven for sleep. You need to make it as relaxing and comfortable as possible. If you tend to toss and turn a lot because your bed is uncomfortable, change the mattress. You’d think it’s not a big deal, but good quality sleep is essential to maintain your overall health. According to Best Mattress Reviews, a comfortable mattress should be firm enough that you don’t sink into the bed (which throws your body out of alignment) but not so firm that you feel like you’re sleeping on the floor. If you keep moving in your sleep because your body is trying to find a comfortable position, you won’t be able to stay in the deep sleep stage and you won’t feel rested when you wake up.
Sleep apnea is a very common sleep disorder that causes insomnia and affects the quality of your sleep. It occurs when the muscles in the back of your throat which support the soft palate, tonsils, tongue, and walls of your throat relax, causing your airways to narrow or close. When your brain senses that you’ve stopped breathing, it wakes you up, not completely, but enough to keep you from staying in deep sleep.
This can happen 5 to 30 times per hour and the biggest symptom is snoring, so don’t take it lightly, you need to see a doctor and if it turns out you do have sleep apnea you’ll be given a continuous positive airway pressure device or CPAP which will help you keep your airways open while you sleep.