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We all have nights when we don't sleep well, but one night without sleep does not mean you have insomnia. 2
Insomnia means "habitual sleeplessness" or an inability to sleep. It is characterized by difficulty falling and/or staying asleep.
The most common symptoms of insomnia are:
- Difficulty falling asleep;
- Waking up often during the night and having trouble going back to sleep;
- Waking up too early in the morning; and/or,
- Feeling tired upon waking.
Types of Insomnia
First, insomnia can be categorized by how long it lasts:
Acute Insomnia: short-term, lasting from one night to a few weeks.
Chronic Insomnia: long-term but will come and go; at least three nights a week for a month or longer.
Second, insomnia can also be categorized by its causes:
Primary insomnia: sleep problems that are not directly associated with any other health condition.
Secondary insomnia: sleep problems because of a health condition, severe or chronic pain, medications, or substances. Health conditions can include (among many) asthma, depression, arthritis, cancer, or heartburn. Substances can include a variety of drugs or alcohol.
Causes of Insomnia
The causes of insomnia are many and varied — they are often unique to each individual.
As a general rule, causes of acute insomnia can be any combination of the following:
- Losing your job;
- The death of a loved one;
- Divorce or (permanent or temporary) separation;
- Change in routine;
- Buying or selling a home;
- Chronic or severe illness;
- Conflict at home or at work;
- Emotional or physical discomfort;
- Noise, light, or extreme temperatures (hot or cold);
- Some medications (for example those used to treat colds, allergies, depression, high blood pressure, and asthma); or,
- Changes in normal sleep schedule (jet lag, job shift changes).
In many of these cases, insomnia will go away when the situation is resolved. If not attended to, however, it can turn into chronic insomnia which is often caused by:
- Depression and/or anxiety;
- Frequent nightmares;
- Chronic stress; or,
- Recurrent or persistent pain or discomfort at night.
Side Effects of Insomnia
We tend to think that loss of sleep is not harmful to our health. Although we may feel tired the next day, we think the effects won't last long. That is true — if we only lose a night or two of sleep.
However, it is believed that chronic insomnia may cause any or all of these conditions:
- Impaired judgement;
- Aged skin;
- Forgetfulness and memory loss;
- Depression; and
In addition, chronic insomnia may lead to serious diseases such as heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, and diabetes.
Acute insomnia, since it is usually short-lived, may not require treatment. Although you may lose a night's sleep now and then, it is usually not a problem. Mild insomnia often can be prevented or cured by practicing good sleep habits (see list below).
Chronic insomnia, however, is much more difficult to treat, yet it needs to be treated to prevent other problems. Many people seek sleeping pills, either by prescription or over-the-counter, but a word of caution comes with those two options.
If you want to consider a prescription sleeping pill, remember that long-term use of sleeping pills is to be avoided if at all possible.
Using over-the-counter sleeping pills for insomnia can also be problematic because they may have undesired side effects and tend to lose their effectiveness over time.
Treatment for chronic insomnia requires long-term considerations. Some possibilities are:
- behavioural therapy (which may help you to change behaviours);
- relaxation or deep-breathing exercises;
- sleep restricting therapy; or,
- reconditioning (which attempts to change habitual behaviour).
You can research these different types of treatments and find one that might work for you.
Good Sleep Habits: Hints for those with Short-Term Insomnia
Here are some suggestions to help you deal with short-term (acute) insomnia:
Keep a regular schedule: go to sleep at the same time each night and get up at the same time each morning.
Follow a routine to help you relax before sleep: shower, listen to music, read, watch TV, perhaps eat a light snack.
Several hours before you go to bed, avoid activities which will stimulate you, such as a scary movie or a tense drama. Avoid exercise close to bedtime as well.
Avoid daytime naps if at all possible.
Avoid stimulants such as coffee, cigarettes or alcohol, especially late in the day.
Get regular exercise during the daytime.
Eat a wise and sensible diet; avoid overeating at any time during the day, but particularly late in the day.
Make your bedroom as dark as possible; try a sleeping mask if light is a problem.
Try earplugs, a fan, or a "white noise" machine if noise is a problem.
Get proper bedding: a good pillow, comfortable sheets and blankets. Avoid being too warm or too cool.
Avoid tossing and turning. If you are unable to get to sleep, it's best to get up and read or do something that is not overly stimulating until you feel sleepy.
Research and Other Sleep Disorders
Researchers believe that your brain has a sleep cycle and a wake cycle — when one is turned on, the other is hopefully turned off. Obviously, there can be a problem with either part of this cycle and researchers now believe that it is very important to first understand what might be causing your sleep difficulties.
There are many possible chemical interactions in the brain that could interfere with sleep, and this may explain why some people seem to be biologically prone to insomnia and struggle with sleep for many years without any identifiable cause — even when they follow healthy sleep advice.
As well, there may also be underlying sleep disorders. For example:
Restless leg syndrome — a neurological condition in which a person has an uncomfortable sensation of needing to move his or her legs.
Sleep apnea — a person's airway becomes partially or completely obstructed during sleep, leading to pauses in breathing and a drop in oxygen levels. This causes a person to wake up briefly but repeatedly throughout the night.
If you suffer from severe insomnia or other sleep disorders, you need help and assistance in determining the causes and how to cope with it. See your family doctor and discuss your options.
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I am a BCRPA-certified fitness instructor in Vancouver, BC. I teach four classes at the West End Community Centre in Vancouver, BC, mostly designed for the older adult. The Inevitable Disclaimer: Everything published here expresses only my opinion, based on my training and research. What you do with the information is entirely your own responsibility. I am not liable for any injury you suffer that seems to be related to anything you read here. Always consult your doctor before beginning an exercise program. For other articles, return to the table of contents.