Most of us can relate to occasional nights when our brains get stuck in overdrive. Instead of sheep, we count digital minutes on a glowing clock waiting for our bodies to surrender and sleep. The next night, a sleep deficit may autocorrect the problem. But if this pattern continues for three or more nights on a weekly basis, a medical condition known as insomnia might be to blame.
Don’t Wait to Take Action
By Marcia Swearingen
What is Insomnia?
Insomnia is a disorder that makes it hard to fall asleep, stay asleep or both. Someone with insomnia often takes 30 minutes or more to fall asleep and may get only six or fewer hours of sleep several nights a week. The amount of sleep we need varies from person to person, but experts recommend seven to eight hours a night to maintain optimum health.
People with insomnia frequently wake up tired, irritable, anxious and unable to focus. They are more prone to errors and accidents and often experience headaches and gastrointestinal symptoms. Mood and quality of life often suffer.
Over 50 percent of adults experience occasional episodes of acute or short-term insomnia. This is often caused by stressful situations related to work, school, family or health. Other culprits include alcohol, nicotine, some prescription medications, and over-the-counter meds containing caffeine and pseudoephedrine. Medical conditions like arthritis, cancer, acid reflux, heart and lung disease, thyroid problems, Alzheimer’s disease and depression are also sleep stealers.
One in 10 people report chronic or longterm wakefulness. Women are twice as likely to have trouble going to sleep. Older adults experiencing changing sleep patterns and health conditions are also often robbed of rest.
Much like computers, our bodies use the “sleep” mode to perform vital updates to our well-being. During deep sleep, our brains store the memories of the day. Without adequate rest we just can’t recall… And when we’re tired, our immune system weakens, making us more vulnerable to short-term diseases but also to major health threats like heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke and diabetes.
The Internal Clock
“Turning in a little earlier, cutting back on caffeine late in the day, and saving that last bit of work rather than staying up late to finish it can make a big difference in how your internal clock functions and in how you feel,” writes bio-psychologist Alice G. Walton in The Atlantic.
Like the clock on our nightstand, our bodies have an internal clock deep within the brain that governs many internal functions. Operating on a “circadian rhythm,” (meaning, a 24-hour cycle) this biological clock regulates hunger, mood, immunity, mental alertness, heart function and stress. Since a normal sleep cycle is related to the sun, anything that disrupts our biological rhythm (jet lag, shift work, daylight savings time) can negatively impact our rest and health. Even an hour can make a big difference. Believe it or not, studies have shown more traffic accidents occur the day after the switch to daylight savings time.
Good “Sleep Hygiene”
Research has shown that in many cases of insomnia, a regular routine has helped reset and maintain sufferers’ biological clocks and restore them to restful sleep. Try these behavioral therapies (tips for good sleep hygiene) and see if you don’t notice a difference.
1. Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, even on weekends.
2. Reserve time in bed for sleeping and sex only. If you can’t fall asleep in 20 minutes, don’t stare at the clock. Go to another room and read or watch television till you’re sleepy enough to return to bed and sleep.
3. Don’t take naps after 3 p.m.
4. Eliminate caffeine, nicotine and alcohol late in the day.
5. Make your bedroom comfortable and conducive to sleep. If light is a distraction, use a sleeping mask. If noise is a problem, use earplugs, turn on a fan, or play soft music.
6. Exercise 20-30 minutes a day, but not within 4 hours of bedtime.
7. Your last meal should be 2 to 3 hours before you retire. If you’re hungry at bedtime, warm milk and a cookie can make you sleepy.
8. If your mind won’t shut down, make a to-do list and post it by your toothbrush for action in the morning.
9. Retire earlier. Give yourself time to relax before bed. Take a warm bath.
10. Check to see if your medications might be keeping you awake.
11. If you have chronic pain, make sure your meds are sufficient for a full night’s sleep.
12. Eliminate electronic interruptions. Cell phones and computers short circuit your dreams.
Seeing a Sleep Specialist
If sleep problems persist, consult your primary care physician or a sleep specialist for help. The field of sleep study is a relatively new branch of medicine making rapid advances through new medications in combination with behavior therapy. Dr. Gabe Tallent, a board-certified neurologist specializing in sleep disorders at Erlanger Health System notes, “So many people go along for years with sleep disorders and just begin to assume that poor sleep will be a natural way of life for them. They don’t think about therapeutic options.”
According to Dr. Tallent, it’s important to nip insomnia in the bud, because it can be an underlying problem that leads to a lot of different health consequences including heart attack and stroke. “Sleep disorders are incredibly common,” he explains. “As a doctor, you really hope people seek treatment because there are so many different things we can do now to alleviate a lot of pain and agony for people on many different levels.”
If you suffer from insomnia, don’t wait to take action. If you make sleep a priority— whether that’s changing your sleep hygiene habits or seeing a specialist—it won’t be long until you start catching up on those zzzzs.
Marcia Swearingen has lived in Chattanooga for 32 years. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in Journalism from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and currently facilitates a Christian writing group for the Chattanooga Writers Guild. Marcia and her husband, Jim, have a grown daughter and live in Hixson.