What Is Insomnia?

Insomnia is a sleep disorder that affects millions of people around the world. Most of us in our lives will suffer from insomnia to some degree, yet few people seek professional help.

Insomnia is a complex and wide ranging condition that is yet to be fully understood by science or the medical profession. Short term insomniacs may experience daytime sleepiness, irritability, anxiety, a lack of energy and an inability to concentrate on simple tasks. Chronic sufferers however, can find the condition extremely debilitating, resulting in serious mental health issues such as depression. In the worst cases, insomnia can prove to be fatal, for example falling asleep whilst driving.

Insomnia Definition

Insomnia is a symptom, and not a disease in it’s own right. In it’s broadest terms, it can be defined as difficulty in falling asleep, staying asleep, or a combination of both. On balance, younger insomniacs have more trouble falling asleep whilst older sufferers will more likely have problems staying asleep.

Types Of Insomnia

Insomnia is a slippery beast, and making a diagnosis can be very tricky. This is in part because the way we judge the quality of our sleep is highly subjective. The only way to truly measure the quality of your sleep is to spend a night being monitored in a sleep laboratory. However, there are recognized classifications that can help you understand the scale of your sleep problems:

Primary insomnia – this is when the individual is having sleep problems that cannot be attributed to any other medical condition or disease ie there are no known physical or psychological causes.

Secondary insomnia is the result of a pre-existing health condition. It is the most common type of insomnia. Illness may directly affect the quality of your sleep, for example in the case of respiratory problems. Similarly, pain and discomfort caused by illness or injury can seriously affect how well you sleep. Secondary insomnia can also be caused by a number of psychological or mental health issues such as stress, anxiety and depression.

Insomnia varies in how long it lasts and how regularly it occurs. Short-term symptoms are described as acute insomnia, lasting for a few days up to a few weeks. Chronic insomnia is a more serious condition, often needing medical intervention.

Causes of Insomnia

There are a wide range of physical, psychological and environmental factors that can cause insomnia. Some of the most common causes of acute insomnia include:

  • stress related ( relationships, financial, study/exams, work)
  • illness or disease
  • physical discomfort
  • psychological or mental health issues (such as anxiety or depression )
  • environmental factors (extremes in noise, light or temperature)
  • irregular sleep schedule (ie from jet-lag, shift-working)
  • side effects of medication
  • use of stimulants ( ie caffeine, tobacco, narcotics)

Chronic insomnia can be caused by:

  • ongoing depression/anxiety
  • serious discomfort or pain at night, sleep apnea
  • chronic stress

Insomnia Symptoms

The symptoms of insomnia depend on which type of sleep disorder you have. However, most people suffering from sleep deprivation and insomnia experience some or all of the following:

  • difficulty falling asleep
  • waking several times during the night
  • waking early and not being able to get back to sleep
  • drowsiness or daytime sleepiness
  • an inability to focus or concentrate
  • irritability/ short temper
  • short attention span
  • poor memory

Types of treatment

Prescription Drugs (Sleeping Pills)
The majority of over the counter treatments for insomnia are so called ‘hypnotic’ drugs, AKA sleeping pills. However, many physicians are wary of prescribing pharmacological treatments such as Benzodiazepines for long term sleep disorders as patients can develop a tolerance to their medication after a week or two, rendering the drugs ineffective and potentially habit forming.

Over the counter (OTC) treatments
Several products have been FDA approved in the US to be sold as sleep aids. The main ingredient of these is a form of antihistamine. Also used in treating allergies and hayfever, antihistamines have the effect of inducing drowsiness in some patients.
Herbal remedies
There are many types of natural herbs and supplements that have been used to treat insomnia. Evidence of their success is mainly anecdotal, due to a lack of large scale scientific research and testing, but certain herbal remedies such as valerian have proven to be moderately effective in clinical studies. Other natural herbs that have been used to treat insomnia include chamomile, lavender, hops and passion-flower.

Natural sleep aids
Recently there has been increased interest in the use of natural supplements such as melatonin and tryptophan to treat sleep disorders. Melatonin is a naturally occuring hormone that the body uses to regulate it’s natural sleep cycle. Tryptophan is an amino acid that is used to form serotonin which is one of the most important brain chemicals or neurotransmitters used to regulate the body’s sleep/wake cycle.

Non Medical Treatment

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy
CBT is the most widely used form of non-drug treatment for insomnia. It is a form of behavioual therapy which consists of a package of treatments including sleep restriction, stimulus control, cognitive therapy and relaxation techniques. Many physicians recommend CBT over medication for treating chronic insomnia because of the long lasting effects it can have.

Other forms of sleep therapy

There are many other types of non-medication based treatments that can help improvethe quality of your sleep. They include various form of sound and light therapy, meditation and relaxation techniques and even treatments based on Eastern practices such as Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine.