We all know how hard it is to get through a day when we’ve had a bad night of sleep. Fuzzy thinking, headaches, and fatigue can make it seem like we’re slogging through mud as we try to accomplish tasks and take care of responsibilities. Now imagine feeling that way for days or weeks on end. For the more than 60 million Americans who struggle with insomnia each year, this prolonged period of sleeplessness is a reality.
Causes of Insomnia
Insomnia is defined as a prolonged period of time where an individual has problems falling asleep, staying asleep, or getting into the deep levels of sleep we need to restore our minds and bodies. There are a number of causes of insomnia with the following being the most common:
- Stress – Those who have higher than usual levels of stress often experience insomnia. Stress causes disruptive and repetitive thoughts that can keep an individual up for hours because they can’t shut their minds off. Stress also produces hormones and other chemicals that increase alertness, making it difficult to get into the restful state needed for sleep. In addition, symptoms of stress such as gastrointestinal problems, headaches, and heart palpitations are not conducive to relaxation and often lead to poor or delayed sleep.
- Adrenal fatigue – Adrenal fatigue is a condition most often brought on by prolonged stress. It affects the adrenal glands’ ability to produce and regulate the hormones that keep up operating on an even keel and results in irritability, anxiety, and depression. Cortisol is the main hormone regulated by the adrenal glands and a key component in how well you sleep. In healthy individuals, cortisol levels are highest in the morning and lowest at night, contributing in a normal sleep cycle. In those with adrenal fatigue, however, this pattern is often disrupted and they experience cortisol spikes during the evening. This affects their ability to fall asleep, stay asleep, and wake refreshed.
- Breathing disorders – There are a number of breathing disorders that can affect the quality of sleep and cause insomnia. Snoring and sleep apnea are the most common sleep breathing disorders and the severity can range from mildly disturbing (to the sleep and those around them) to life-threatening. Those with sleep apnea continually stop breathing throughout their sleep cycle and are at risk for high blood pressure, heart failure, kidney failure, and stroke.
- Chronic pain – Those who experience chronic pain due to illness, injury, or other conditions often have insomnia. If the pain is not controlled with a proper treatment plan, it can be very difficult to sleep through and it’s common for chronic pain sufferers to wake multiple times throughout the night due to discomfort.
- Medications – Side effects of many popular over-the-counter or prescription medications include increased heart rate, a reduction of REM sleep, inhibition of the ‘sleep hormone’ melatonin, and muscle pain. These can all interfere with the sleep cycle and cause insomnia.
Lack of Sleep Effects
Losing a few hours of quality sleep for just one night can have a big effect on you the following day. The cumulative effect of insomnia, though, can be even more serious and cause multiple health problems. Here are just a few of the symptoms insomniacs experience:
- Fatigue or sluggishness – It’s pretty obvious that losing sleep will result in feeling tired the next day. This can range from a few yawns in the morning until your coffee kicks into overwhelming fatigue that makes it difficult to perform your day-to-day activities.
- Impaired thinking – Sleep deprivation impairs your alertness and ability to concentrate, which is important if you try to perform a complex task at work or take a test at school. It can also affect your ability to drive and some researchers even equate fatigued driving with drunk driving.
- Memory problems – The nerve connections in our brain that make memories are strengthened while you sleep and many memories are embedded while in the deep levels of rest. Insomniacs tend to have worse memories than those who sleep well and have problems transferring everyday events into their short-term memory.
- Moodiness – Lack of sleep causes anger, irritability, and a weakened ability to deal with everyday emotions. If insomnia continues, it can easily lead to depression. Depression then makes it even more difficult to sleep, causing a sleep deprivation cycle that can seem nearly impossible to break.
- Compromised immune system – Those who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to get sick after being exposed to common viruses like the common cold. They are also more susceptible to more serious illnesses and diseases due to a weakened immune system. The immune system releases cytokines, which can improve sleep and are needed to fight off infections. Those who experience sleep problems don’t produce as many cytokines and they also produce fewer antibodies that are necessary to fight off infections.
- Decreased hormone production – Waking up frequently throughout the night can have an effect on hormone production. Testosterone production, for example, requires three hours of uninterrupted sleep. Human growth hormone production is also affected by lack of sleep and research currently being done suggests that nearly every hormone in the body is affected by insomnia.
Insomnia Treatment in San Francisco
The most important part of any insomnia treatment is first discovering why it is occurring. Is it due to stress? Pain? A previously undiagnosed illness or disease? Once the reason is uncovered, a treatment plan can be developed. Treatments may include:
- Stress management – Changes in lifestyle, learning to deal with anger, exercise, and other stress management techniques may be all you need to return to restful sleep.
- Relaxation techniques. Deep breathing, yoga, and meditation are just a few examples of relaxation techniques that can reduce sleeplessness.
- CPAP machines – CPAP machines have proven to be an effective treatment for those with sleep apnea and have led to deeper sleep and fewer health-related problems.
- Therapy – Many individuals who suffer from insomnia benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy to help them change habits and alter the way they think about sleep. Therapy helps individuals develop healthier thought patterns that often lead to better sleep.
- Medication – There are numerous over-the-counter and prescription medications that can help individuals fall asleep and stay asleep. When you work with a sleep expert, he or she may incorporate medication into your treatment plan depending on your physical health and symptoms.
Insomnia is a frustrating condition that can lead to an overall decline in quality of life. If you have questions about insomnia or would like to learn more about conditions that can lead to sleeplessness, please schedule an appointment with our licensed doctors.