Why do we sleep?
Sound sleep is the bedrock of cognitive function and yet, so many of us fail to achieve a good night of regenerative sleep. Sleep restores energy, promotes regeneration, strengthens the immune system, relieves stress, assists memory and enables learning, which is why we typically spend around one third of our lives sleeping.
During sleep, the body is working to repair and rejuvenate itself. One such rejuvenation process is the recently discovered glymphatic system, a predominantly sleep active macroscopic waste elimination system within the brain. The glymphatic system has two primary functions, the first is to clear potentially neurotoxic waste compounds, the other is to distribute beneficial compounds such as lipids, amino acids, glucose and neurotransmitters. This vital activity highlights the importance of prioritizing a good night sleep.
Definition of Insomnia
Insomnia is a sleep disorder that disrupts our sleeping pattern. The circadian rhythm is the body’s biological sleep-wake cycle and operates on a 24-hour clock (approximately.) During the sleep-cycle, the hormone Melatonin is produced turning the wake cycle off. Disruption of the circadian rhythm can result in insomnia, either by struggling to fall asleep, struggling to remain asleep or waking unrefreshed.
Insomnia has been linked to a spectrum of health issues including fatigue, poor concentration, mood swings, high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes. While good sleep differs for everyone (early birds, night owls, power nappers, siesta lovers) not getting consistent restorative sleep also makes everyday tasks difficult, such as keeping a schedule, comprehending new information and maintaining productive interpersonal relationships.
Different Types of Insomnia
Insomnia is the most common of all the sleep disorders, with millions of people suffering from it at least once in their lives. The Sleep Health Foundation cite around 1 in 3 experience mild insomnia, with women twice as likely to suffer as men. People are also sleeping less than they used to with Americans sleeping an average of 6.8 hours per day, down more than an hour from 1942 (startsleeping.org 2019 statistics.)
Most types of insomnia are categorized by the duration of time the condition is experienced, or which stage of the sleep cycle it impacts.
- Acute insomnia (short-term) – possibly due to bereavement, work/exam stress, a break-up, event anticipation or illness
- Chronic insomnia (long-term, months or years) – persistent struggle either falling asleep or staying asleep at least three nights per week, may be associated with behavioural factors, chronic stress, or prolonged illness
- Onset insomnia – difficulty falling asleep
- Maintenance insomnia – difficulty remaining asleep
- Comorbid insomnia – combined with another health condition, either physical or mental
Causes of Insomnia
Causes of insomnia present differently for the individual and are not always obvious; they could be a combination of physical, psychological or behavioural elements. Insomnia may also be the cause or the effect of a condition, for example, the cause of insomnia may be anxiety or anxiety may cause insomnia. Similarly, sleep apnea (another sleep disorder) indicates difficulty breathing while asleep but may result in insomnia.
Physical causes can include:
- Nasal or sinus conditions
- Gastrointestinal problems, reflux
- Chronic pain, back pain
- Restless leg syndrome
- Asthma, breathing problems
- Cardiovascular disease
- Hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid)
Psychological causes can include:
- Bipolar disorder (manic phase)
- Chronic stress
- Excessive worrying
Behavioural causes can include:
- Financial burdens
- Blue screen from electronic devices
- Rotating work roster, night shifts
- Crossing several time zones
- Obesity, sedentary lifestyle
- Substance use
Symptoms of Insomnia
Symptoms of insomnia are indicated by the behaviours we exhibit and some of the most common ones are: difficulty falling asleep (Onset insomnia), difficulty staying asleep or periodically waking then having trouble returning to sleep (Maintenance insomnia) or feeling unrested upon awakening (Non-restorative sleep.) Most obvious are the feelings produced by these behaviours such as: fatigue, lethargy, drowsiness, sluggishness and the general disposition of feeling tired, resulting in poor concentration, forgetfulness, apathy, irritability, impulsiveness or being short-tempered.
Cures for Insomnia
For sufferers of short-term insomnia, a combination of cures can be implemented. Be mindful that it will take time to balance the sleep-wake cycle, so prepare for a trial and error period, until the right combination presents itself.
- Avoid coffee, tea, sugar, meals and exercise before bed. These are all stimulants. Try natural sleep aids like warm milk, herbal tea or supplements such as magnesium, Passionflower, Zizyphus or California Poppy.
- Create a conducive sleep space. TVs and phones keep minds engaged. Blue screen light emitted from devices has been shown to suppress levels of melatonin, disrupting the sleep-wake cycle.
- Establish a bedtime routine. Go to bed and wake up at the same time, including weekends. Consistency promotes good sleep.
- Quit smoking and limit drinking. Nicotine and alcohol severely disrupt sleep patterns.
- Keep stressful conversations for the day.
- Promote relaxing rituals. Read a book, meditate, deep breathing, play peaceful music or ambient sounds.
- Introduce aromatherapy such as lavender, sandalwood, neroli, cedarwood.
- Evaluate your medications.
- Consider a sleep log to record when you fall asleep, wake up, instances of disruption.
- Stay active during the day.
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