By Dr. Loretta Lanphier, ND, CN, HHP, CH

Some people, for a variety of reasons, are consistently unable to get enough quality sleep to meet their body’s needs. More than just an annoying nuisance, the health consequences can be much more serious than many people suspect. Even aside from that, insomniacs can suffer from a drastically reduced quality of life. A friend who has had a lifelong problem with sleep issues once told me he couldn’t even imagine what it would be like to sleep a whole night through without waking up at least a half-dozen times. Sleeping restfully through the night is totally foreign to his experience. Unfortunately, he has a lot of company in that regard. Is there hope for these denizens of the night? Yes, indeed there is. The good news is that most folks can be helped through natural means without relying on the use of dangerous medications.

What is Insomnia?

Insomnia is a sleep disorder that causes inability to either get enough sleep, or enough of the right kind of sleep, or both. Insomnia is a recurring problem with sleep that can be very frustrating for many patients because they often have no idea what is causing it. Some insomniacs have trouble falling asleep, some may find it difficult to stay asleep, and many report they never feel rested upon awakening no matter how many hours of sleep they have had.  The funny thing about insomnia is that fretting about it can actually bring it on and make the problem worse. Come to think of it, this is likely true with most of illnesses.

How much sleep do we humans need? That is not an easy question to answer, as it varies for each individual, and factors such as age and lifestyles play a part too. In general, the average adult statistically needs about 7 ½ hours of sleep per night, but that is only an average. Some folks find they require up to ten hours nightly to feel refreshed. Then there are those fortunate individuals who can function well on 4 or 5 hours. (I must admit I am envious). It is also proven that most folks need less sleep as they age. The important thing is to know your personal target for optimum amount of sleep, and try to consistently hit it. As we will see, enough quality sleep is a critical factor in our overall health.

Millions of people suffer from insomnia to one degree or another. It is more common in certain segments of the population, such as women and older adults. Some interesting studies have shown that people who have a lower socioeconomic status have a higher incidence of insomnia, as well as divorced, separated, or widowed individuals. The reasons for these patterns are not well understood.

Much has been learned in recent decades about the mechanics of how and why we sleep. The basic breakdown goes like this: two major types of sleep (REM and non-REM) that repeat themselves in cycles throughout the night.

  • REM stands for “rapid eye movement,” and this is the stage of sleep where most dreaming takes place.
  • NREM is an acronym for “non-rapid eye movement.” There are four distinct stages that occur during NREM:

ü       Stage 1: This is the earliest stage of sleep, often described as “relaxed wakefulness.”

ü       Stage 2:  Considered “light sleep.”

ü       Stage 3:  The first stage of “deep sleep.”

ü       Stage 4:  The deepest level of sleep, also called “delta sleep.” Most stage 4 sleep is normally found in the first few hours of sleep.

  • The cycles typically consist of a period of NREM sleep followed by a period of REM sleep, repeating with certain variations.

What Are the Causes of Insomnia?

Insomnia is generally found in two forms

  • Transient or temporary insomnia: This is usually caused by a stressful or emotionally challenging event in your life that is not a permanent situation. Examples might include a fight with your spouse, a disturbing phone call or letter, jet lag, a brief minor illness, or anxiety about an important event the next day, such as a job interview. Almost all cases of transient insomnia will dissipate naturally, and are normal for everyone to experience from time to time.
  • Chronic insomnia is a much more serious condition that can lead to cumulative health problems and complications if it is not dealt with. There are many possible causes for chronic insomnia:

ü       Stress is probably the number one cause for insomnia. Worries about finances, relationships, jobs, your health—you fill in the blank. Just about any stressor can trigger insomnia.

ü       Stimulants are found in many foods and medicines that we may consume every day. People who struggle with insomnia must be especially careful to manage their exposure to stimulants, especially closer to bedtime. Watch out for prescription drugs (corticosteroids, hypertension medications, and some antidepressants), over- the- counter drugs such as pain or cold medicines, and weight-loss products. Also watch your intake of caffeinated soft drinks, coffee, tea, and chocolate.

ü       Changes in schedules can also throw our sleep patterns off. This is especially true for many people who work changing shifts. Our internal biological clock, or “circadian rhythm“ is normally regulated by the cycles of daylight and darkness in nature. If we are “swimming up stream,” so to speak, by trying to sleep during the day and work at night, it can create real problems, especially for someone who already has bouts of insomnia.

ü       Genetic tendencies for sleep disorders are known to exist, but more research needs to be done in this area. Suffice it to say that if you have a family history of insomnia, be on the lookout for its effects in your own life.

ü       Behavioral insomnia:  Remember a few paragraphs back when I said worrying about insomnia can lead to insomnia?  Well, its true, and it even has a name. That’s what behavioral insomnia is. There is such a thing as trying too hard to fall asleep.

ü       Depression can cause disruptions in our natural sleep patterns. If you are troubled emotionally, it can make it hard to get to sleep or stay asleep. Depression also causes individuals to sleep too much, often at the wrong times, so that when it is time to go to bed at night, sleep eludes them.

ü       Chronic pain from another medical condition can keep many people from experiencing enough quality sleep. Managing your pain is important, so find a way (preferably drug-free) to deal with the pain so that it won’t disturb your sleep.

ü       Sleep medications, as unlikely as that sounds, can cause insomnia, especially when taken over long periods of time. You can become both physically and psychologically dependent on them, and they begin to lose their effectiveness over time. Stay away from sleeping pills if at all possible. The goal is to teach our bodies how to naturally get good sleep, not to medicate. We’ll talk more about that in a moment.

ü       Children and teens may suffer from insomnia as well as adults. Studies have shown that most kids do not get enough sleep. Some school buses pick up their first students shortly after 6AM! That would be OK if they went to bed at 8PM or so, but how realistic is that? Our children are learning to “survive” on less and less sleep these days, a habit that is often carried into adult hood. I think we have lost the vital importance of sleep in our 24-hour hustle-bustle society.

What Complications can Arise from Insomnia?

So, what’s the big deal? Is a lack of sleep really all that important? Well, the more we learn, the more evident it becomes that sleep is absolutely essential for our bodies to function in a healthful state. A consistent lack of sleep puts our immune systems in a very compromised condition. This has been linked to concerns about many diseases, including cancer, diabetes, heart conditions, and high blood pressure, to name a few. Many psychiatric illnesses can be caused or aggravated by sleep deprivation as well, such as depression and anxiety disorders.

The risk of accidents alone due to insomnia and other sleep disorders is a major health problem. It is estimated that more than 100,000 automobile accidents per year are attributable to drivers falling asleep behind the wheel. One study cited sleep deprivation for as many as 60% of all traffic accidents. Some states are even passing laws that can charge drivers with driving unsafely due to lack of sleep similar to existing drunk driving statutes.

How Can I Help Myself Deal With Insomnia?

This is the best news of all. You don’t need drugs to help with insomnia. Allow me to provide my favorite “Top 5” list of very practical, safe, and simple tips to conquer this pervasive problem:

  • #1:Get rid of your loud, obnoxious alarm clock. Waking up to the dissonance of a screaming machine is a shock to your system, and only harms your body’s ability to naturally get its sleep cycles in order. There are many more gentle options, such as peaceful music, or recordings of natural sounds like birds singing. There is even an alarm that simulates the sunrise by using progressively brighter light to awaken you naturally. Think about putting one of these on your Christmas list this year.
  • #2:Keep the temperature in your bedroom as cool as you can comfortably stand it. It has been shown that people generally sleep better in a cooler atmosphere. Use an extra blanket and a pair of warm socks if needed. Your heat bills will be pleasantly lower too, which will reduce stress and help you sleep even better!
  • #3:Try eating a high-protein snack a few hours before bedtime. This can bolster your levels of L-tryptophan necessary for the production of melatonin and serotonin, which are both released by the body to aid sleep. Combine this with a piece of fruit, which can help the tryptophan to pass through the blood-brain barrier.
  • #4:Be faithful with a regular and consistent exercise routine. This is probably one of the best long-term habits for battling insomnia. Studies show that it is best to do it first thing in the morning if possible.
  • #5:Use your bedroom exclusively for sleeping. The darker and quieter, the better. This will help you to fall asleep faster and enjoy deeper, more refreshing sleep.

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