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Insomnia! Ungh! What is it? And What is it Good For?

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July 16, 2014 | Published by


insomnia illustration by Flickr user Joana Coccarelli

What is Insomnia?

Insomnia is a word that gets used a lot to describe every type of sleep problem imaginable, but what is it exactly? By definition, insomnia is a sleep condition characterized by difficulty falling and/or staying asleep. Typically, insomnia exists when one or more of the following complaints are experienced:

  • Difficulty falling asleep
  • Waking up frequently during the night with difficulty returning to sleep
  • Waking up too early in the morning
  • Unrefreshing sleep

There are three different types of insomnia people experience: transient (short term), intermittent (on and off), and chronic (constant). Regardless of type, insomnia can have quite the effect on your health and daily life. Lack of quality sleep can cause many daily problems like tiredness, lack of energy, difficulty concentrating, and irritability.

What Causes Insomnia?

There are many causes of insomnia. Transient and intermittent insomnia generally occur in people who are temporarily experiencing one or more of the following:

  • Stress
  • Environmental noise
  • Extreme temperatures
  • Change in your surrounding environment (work and/or home)
  • Sleep/wake schedule problems such as those due to jet lag and alternate shift work
  • Side effect from a medication

Chronic insomnia is more complex and often results from a combination of factors, including underlying physical or mental disorders. One of the most common causes of chronic insomnia is depression. Other underlying causes include arthritis, kidney disease, heart failure, asthma, sleep apnea, narcolepsy, restless legs syndrome, Parkinson’s disease, and hyperthyroidism. However, chronic insomnia may also be due to behavioral factors, including the misuse of caffeine, alcohol, or other substances; disrupted sleep/wake cycles as may occur with shift work or other nighttime activity schedules; and chronic stress.

Here are some more behaviors that have been shown to cause insomnia:

  • The expectation and worry over sleep/sleep difficulties
  • Excessive caffeine intake
  • Alcohol or tobacco consumption close to bedtime
  • Excessive napping during the day
  • Irregular or continually disrupted sleep/wake schedules

These behaviors may prolong existing insomnia, and they can also be responsible for causing the sleeping problem in the first place. Stopping these behaviors may eliminate the insomnia altogether.

How is Insomnia Treated?

Transient and intermittent insomnia may not require treatment since episodes last only a few days at a time. For example, if insomnia is due to a temporary change in the sleep/wake schedule, as with jet lag, the person’s biological clock will often return to normal on its own. If you suffer from chronic insomnia, speak with your healthcare practitioner. Chronic loss of sleep can have detrimental effects on your daily life, and can even lead to severe health conditions.

Here are some natural methods used to help insomnia:

Relaxation Therapy: There are specific and effective techniques that can reduce or eliminate anxiety and body tension. As a result, the person’s mind is able to stop “racing,” the muscles can relax, and restful sleep can occur. It usually takes much practice to learn these techniques and to achieve effective relaxation.

Sleep Restriction: Some people suffering from insomnia spend too much time in bed unsuccessfully trying to sleep. They may benefit from a sleep restriction program that at first allows only a few hours of sleep during the night. Gradually, the time is increased until a more normal night’s sleep is achieved.

Reconditioning: Another treatment that may help some people is to recondition them to associate the bed and bedtime with sleep. For most people, this means not using their beds for any activities other than sleep and sex. As part of the reconditioning process, the person is usually advised to go to bed only when sleepy. If unable to fall asleep, the person is told to get up, stay up until sleepy, and then return to bed. Throughout this process, the person should avoid naps and wake up and go to bed at the same time each day. Eventually, the person’s body will be conditioned to associate the bed and bedtime with sleep.

More information on insomnia can be found at the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute website: http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/health-topics/topics/inso/

Image Credit: Insomnia collage by Flickr user narghee-la


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1 Comment

  • Another consideration about sleeping difficulties is excess cortisol production in the evening and/or during the middle of the night. Some people with adrenal exhaustion will get a relative boost of energy in the evening, and then sleep poorly. The excess cortisol can come about from to much activity in the evening hours, a diet high sugar, i.e. high glycemic foods, or other stressors. I have seen many people with sleeping problems who harbored chronic infections in their digestive system such as parasites or bacterial imbalances. Therefore, if sleep problems continue despite a change in nighttime routines, diet, etc. than doing some assessment for GI infections or adrenal function is warranted.

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