Written By Mili Dhru, Contributing Writer
Sleep is one of the most vital components of our health and affects almost every function of our bodies. As imperative as getting a sufficient amount of shut-eye is, between 50 and 70 million Americans report having a sleep disorder that prevents them from sleeping soundly throughout the night (ASA, 2018).
Insomnia is one of the most commonly diagnosed sleep disorders and is defined as a condition that involves a “persistent difficulty with sleep initiation, duration, consolidation or quality” (Sleep Foundation, 2020). Insomnia can be categorized as being either “sleep-onset”, which refers to a person’s difficulty with falling asleep, or “sleep-maintenance”, which refers to the inability of a person to stay asleep after initially being able to do so (Sleep Foundation, 2020).
Those with mixed insomnia may struggle with both of these conditions simultaneously, while people with chronic insomnia typically report experiencing a gradual shift from one to the other over time. The diagnosis of insomnia is generally based on two consistently observable factors: 1) difficulty sleeping despite copious opportunities for normal sleep and 2) poor daytime functioning that is directly due to a lack of adequate sleep quality and/or duration (Sleep Foundation, 2020).
The underlying causes of insomnia are diverse in nature–the disorder can manifest individually or in association with other medical conditions. Chronic insomnia that occurs independently usually develops following a period of trauma or stress or as a result of negative habits that contribute to poor sleep hygiene. In addition, disruptions to the natural circadian rhythm of the body due to circumstances such as traveling (jet lag and changing time zones) and work (frequently switching shifts or working multiple shifts consecutively) can cause imbalances in the body’s “internal clock” system that can dysregulate sleep-wake cycles, temperature, and metabolism (Mayo Clinic, 2016).
Examples of poor sleep habits can include “an irregular bedtime schedule, naps, stimulating activities before bed, an uncomfortable sleep environment, using your bed for work, and eating or watching TV” (Mayo Clinic, 2016); experts also emphasize reducing the amount of time spent in front of a phone, tablet, or laptop screen right before bed and avoiding consuming products that contain caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol.
Oftentimes, the onset of insomnia can be linked to another pre-existing condition. Mental health disorders like anxiety, depression and other medical conditions such as “pain, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, asthma, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), overactive thyroid, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease” (Mayo Clinic, 2016) can also act as triggers for insomnia and worsen the symptoms that arise from the disorder.
Occasional sleeplessness is a common occurrence for most people, but certain demographics experience insomnia specifically with more prevalence than other groups do. Studies have determined that women, especially while pregnant, are at higher risk for insomnia due to the extreme hormonal fluctuations that take place. Between thirty-eight and forty percent of seniors also suffer from insomnia, which can most likely be attributed to comorbid medical conditions and a higher quantity of prescription medications being administered (Mayo Clinic, 2016).
The likelihood of developing insomnia can be decreased by taking a few simple preventative measures. These measures include maintaining a regular sleep and exercise schedule, and consuming healthy foods. Also avoiding large meals, excess caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine can help regulate sleeping cycles. Establishing a comfortable and relaxing environment in the bedroom and avoiding daytime naps can also help to induce sleep (Mayo Clinic, 2016).
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