Insomnia: A Daytime Problem with Night Time Consequences
Trouble sleeping? You are not alone! Occasional insomnia affects most of us at one time or another. Ten percent of the U.S. population suffers from chronic insomnia, lasting 6 months or more. Let’s explore what is insomnia, and how does it affect us. For solutions to insomnia, check out Insomnia – Part 2: Manage Insomnia and Improve Your Sleep.
“Clinically significant insomnia” is defined as insufficient sleep on 3 or more nights per week. Adults need 7.5-8 hours of sleep, while children and adolescents require 9-10 hours.
There are Three Types of Insomnia
- Transient, precipitated by life stress. It is situational and usually lasts less than one month.
- Sub-Acute, which persists 1-6 months. It can be caused by stress and / or physical conditions such as sleep apnea, Parkinson’s disease, hot flashes, and restless leg syndrome.
- Chronic, which persists 6 months or more. It can be caused by stress, physical conditions, or genetics (familial insomnia syndrome).
Most insomnia is not just a disorder of sleep — it has its roots in daytime stress.
In women, hormonal transitions such as postpartum and peri-menopause can trigger sleep problems.
Many of us self-medicate for insomnia, for example with alcohol or other chemicals. But in the long run some of these self-treatments worsen insomnia.
Let’s take a closer look at the type of insomnia most of us experience — stress-related insomnia.
Most insomnia is not just a disorder of sleep — it has its roots in daytime stress. The stress we experience throughout the day, and how we perceive and manage that stress, can create or perpetuate insomnia.
Let’s explore how this works:
Stress activates the body’s emergency system, housed in our brain, adrenal glands, and nervous system — and triggers our stress-management cascade:
- You perceive stress from work, family, financial, social situations.
- Your brain gets notice: “Attention: Stress!”
- Nerve impulses in your brain trigger a gland, the pituitary, in your brain to make stress-coping hormone signals.
The stress-hormone-coping signals travel through the blood stream. The adrenal glands respond by making adrenaline to further arouse the nervous system, and cortisol to adjust our metabolism in ways that help the body cope with stress.
The adrenaline and cortisol “activate” the body’s nerve and metabolic systems. This:
- increases your heart rate
- increases your blood vessel constriction producing high blood pressure
- increases your body temperature
- increases your body movements before the onset of sleep, leading to physical agitation, such as “restless leg” syndrome
- changes your metabolism to increase fat deposits around your middle
These physical changes caused by stress during the daytime cause excess arousal, an energy that manifests itself as:
- delayed onset of sleep
- frequent awakenings
- poor sleep quality
Our response to stress and how it causes insomnia is fairly elaborate. Hopefully, now you can see how lack of sleep can have serious long-term consequences such as:
- weight gain*
- high blood pressure
- altered perception of the world, even psychosis
*Sleep deprivation turns on our appetite centers in the brain, and we crave carbohydrates. It also ramps up our stress hormones, contributing to even more weight gain.
Once insomnia is established, it produces physical changes in our bodies that make it self-perpetuating.
Insomnia Produces Fatigue, Not Sleepiness
Ironically, insomnia causes daytime “fatigue,” which may actually inhibit “sleepiness.”
“Sleepiness” is a feeling of physical and mental tiredness associated with a desire and ability to sleep.
“Fatigue” is a feeling of physical and mental tiredness not associated with increased tendency to sleep. Instead, fatigue can produce a sensation of agitated wakefulness.
Insomnia increases our body’s inflammatory response. Normally our “inflammation molecules” peak shortly after onset of sleep. However, with insomnia our inflammation molecules peak in the early evening and remain sustained throughout the night and day, contributing to a sensation of restlessness and fatigue.
Life Transitions Increase Our Vulnerability to Insomnia
Dramatic hormonal transitions such as peri-menopause and post-partum are associated with insomnia.
As we get older our body becomes more “reactive” to similar amounts of stress because we grow more physically sensitive to the stress-modulating hormones.
We’ve explored the causes of insomnia, from daytime stresses and life transitions, and seen how insomnia can cause weight gain, high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, and even an altered perception of the world.
Be sure to read Insomnia – Part 2: Manage Insomnia and Improve Your Sleep for how to regularly get a good nights sleep.
What’s your experience?
Do you suffer from insomnia? If so, how long has it been going on?
What long-term strategies have you found to successfully reduce your insomnia?
Scroll down to the bottom and Leave a Comment in the box below. Thanks for sharing your experience!
Sources and Resources
Morin et al. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Singly and Combined with Medication, for Persistent Insomnia: A Randomized Controlled Trial JAMA May 20, 2009—Vol 301, No, 19, page 2005.
Basta, M et al. Chronic Insomnia and Stress System Sleep, Med Clin. 2007 June 2(2): 279-291.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Relaxation Techniques
Bourne, Edmund J. The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook, Fourth Edition New Harbinger Publications, Inc. Oakland, CA, 2005.
Spradlin, Scott E. Don’t Let Your Emotions Run Your Life New Harbinger Publications, Inc. Oakland, CA, 2003.