Are You Awake? Let's Talk About Insomnia
Many people suffer from sleepless nights one way or another, whether because of work stress, anxiety about family issues, worrying for loved ones....The list goes on.
According to the Sleep Foundation and the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM), up to 35 percent of adults suffer from insomnia, a sleep disorder characterized by difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep.
What exactly constitutes difficulty falling asleep? We spoke to sleep experts to find out what insomnia really means and what we can do to combat it.
Symptoms and causes of insomnia
"If it's taking you more than 10 to 30 minutes to fall asleep, that is considered prolonged sleep latency, which may indicate you are suffering from insomnia," said Abhinav Singh, M.D., a sleep physician on the medical review panel of the Sleep Foundation and the medical director of the Indiana Sleep Center.
If this happens at least three times a week for at least three months, you should consider that you might be suffering from chronic insomnia.
Singh added that besides life stressors and having a busy mind before bedtime, unhealthy screen habits, such as using devices or watching TV near bedtime, perpetuate insomnia.
"This, on top of the disruption of sleep schedules due to remote working, has further exacerbated sleep disorders in adults," said Thanuja Hamilton, M.D., a double board-certified sleep medicine specialist at the Advocare Sleep Physicians of South Jersey.
'Respect and prioritize sleep just as you would your nutrition and your exercise. Maintain a good sleep routine and be in tune with your body's sleep needs.'
"Working from home has resulted in irregular schedules, irregular sleeping times that cause our circadian rhythm (internal body clock) to go out of sync," she explained. "When we are not sleeping at our regular sleeping hours, it confuses our brain. Also, our bed is now a place for thinking, for working, instead of a place for sleeping. We need to recondition the way we see our beds: It has to be a place for sleeping."
Hamilton added that sometimes, other sleep issues can contribute to insomnia, such as sleep apnea, which can cause you to wake up in the middle of the night.
"Secondary insomnia can also happen, such as when we are affected and awakened by our sleeping partner's sleep apnea," she said.
More common in women
While insomnia is common in all age groups, numerous studies indicate higher rates of insomnia occur in women in comparison to men. Researchers believe this might be caused by biological differences, such as hormonal changes and differences in circadian rhythms, as well as cultural and social differences that affect sleep.
Studies also show that women tend to be more vulnerable to depressive symptoms and anxiety that often result in sleep problems, as sleep is very closely tied to mental health.
Singh added that women past the age of 60 have a higher prevalence of insomnia as compared to men, and that insomnia becomes more common as we age.
"Other medical disorders and sleep disorders often coexist," he explained. "[There are also] medications, menopause, bowel or bladder related disruptions. Melatonin production [a hormone that regulates our sleep cycle] also tends to reduce with age, among other reasons."
The consequences of treatment
In the short term, insomnia may cause irritable moods, forgetfulness and sleepiness throughout the day. In the long run, this sleep disorder can affect blood pressure and cause hypertension, weight gain, anxiety, depression, memory problems, attention deficits and more.
If you have been experiencing symptoms of insomnia that are disrupting daytime activities, it is highly recommended you get treatment from a sleep physician or other specialists your family doctor might recommend.
"If you find yourself having a hard time falling or staying asleep, I recommend seeking help earlier than later, as tailored behavioral therapies with or without short-term medications can help resolve and reverse this more easily than when it has become chronic," Singh said.
Both Singh and Hamilton said that treatment usually involves cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) and implementing good sleep hygiene habits.
Tips for prevention
For people who are perpetually sleep-deprived, it's better to nip the problem in the bud before symptoms of insomnia start to affect day-to-day activities. Hamilton has the following three tips.
1. Set regular sleep times and avoid taking naps
"Sometimes because of our irregular sleeping habits, we are so tired we nap during the day," Hamilton said. "This can disrupt our sleep cycle."
The solution to this is to implement good sleep hygiene, such as setting a consistent and regular sleep time. This conditions our brain and bodies to a regular sleep cycle.
2. Don't bring work with you to bed
Bringing the office to bed might seem like a very comfortable way of getting your work done, but Hamilton emphasized that blurring the lines between work and rest can negatively affect the way our brain perceives rest.
When we associate work, watching TV, reading or even thinking with our bed, we are associating our place of rest with wakefulness, and that can disrupt our sleep schedule.
3. Shut off the screen at least 30 minutes before bedtime
Looking at the screen before bedtime keeps our minds psychologically engaged, which might mean we procrastinate in our sleep. Plus, blue light from our screens suppresses melatonin.
If you can, put your devices away at least half an hour to an hour before you go to bed and instead try more relaxing activities before you sleep, such as meditating, yoga or taking an evening stroll.
"Respect and prioritize sleep just as you would your nutrition and your exercise," Singh added. "Maintain a good sleep routine and be in tune with your body's sleep needs."