The word insomnia is pretty simple in origin — it comes directly from the Latin, the “in” signifying “no” and “somnia” meaning sleep. That said, this condition that’s easy to define is not easy to experience, as it can cause irritability, depression, errors, exhaustion, impatience, lack of focus, headaches, and more.
Insomnia can be short-term or temporary, when your sleep patterns are affected by stress or trauma. Or, you can experience long-term insomnia, which may be a symptom of an underlying disorder or an effect of medication you take for another condition.
Either way, insomnia is characterized by:
- Difficulty falling asleep
- Difficulty staying asleep
- Waking up in the middle of the night or too early and being unable to get back to sleep
- Not feeling rested after a night’s sleep
- Daytime tiredness
Short-term insomnia is often caused by outside stresses that you internalize: changes in job or family situation, disruptions in your travel or work schedule, worries about things you can’t control.
Poor sleep habits contribute to insomnia, as well. If you’re watching a screen (phone, tablet, television or computer) before bedtime, that is going to affect your ability to fall asleep. When you go to sleep at 10 and wake up at seven during the week, but wait until midnight to go to sleep and wake at noon on the weekend, that’s going to have an effect as well. (See our Top Ten Sleep Tips for information about creating a better sleep environment.)
Causes of both short and long-term insomnia include:
- Eating too much, too late
- Caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
- Conditions such as nasal or sinus allergies and asthma, which affect your breathing
- Conditions such as thyroid problems or Parkinson’s
- Sleep disorders including apnea or restless leg syndrome
Aging, gender, napping unhealthy sleep routines, medications and health changes can also factor into insomnia. Also, women are more likely to experience insomnia as a result of hormonal changes from menstrual cycles, pregnancy and menopause.
No matter what the cause of your insomnia, one of the most important things to do to prevent it is to follow good sleep hygiene: know when to tune out the screens, stop eating heavy food, stop the caffeine and more. St. Luke’s has put together a list of sleep rules that can be found here.
At St. Luke’s, your doctor may recommend that you take a certain dose of melatonin each night. Melatonin, a hormone made in your pineal gland, helps control your sleep and wake cycles. Though it is present in small amounts in some foods, it can be found as a supplement. Because it can cause interactions with other medicines you use, only take melatonin under a doctor’s advice, after discussing your other medications.
Exercise forms such as yoga and tai chi may help relieve any stress you carry, while giving your muscles a gentle workout and stretch. Meditation can also help you find a way to separate daily stresses and relax your brain.
At St. Luke’s, your physician will give you a thorough physical and take a complete medical history. Your doctor will also ask you about any life changes or stresses, to see what outside conditions may be manifesting themselves in insomnia. If the cause is not determined, a blood test for thyroid problems or other conditions may be administered.
Your health care professional will also discuss with you the importance of healthy sleep habits. You may be asked to keep a sleep diary, recording the times you go to bed versus when you fall asleep; how often and for how long you wake up during the night; when you wake up; how you feel when you awaken; and how you feel during the day. (If you record this information for a week or so before you see your doctor, it will be helpful in narrowing down a problem and a solution.)
You may be advised to take a sleep study, which you can schedule at the St. Luke’s Sleep Disorders Center. There, you will undergo several non-invasive tests over a period of time. Based on the results of the study, your doctor will provide a recommendation for treatment.
Treatments for insomnia range from lifestyle changes and therapy to medication.
As your sleep habits are a major contributor to insomnia, no matter what the other causes are, adjusting them to be healthy is a great step in the right direction. Maintaining strict going-to-bed and waking times and getting daily aerobic exercise can help you sleep better at night, which can prevent daytime sleepiness. Not smoking, and avoiding caffeine and alcohol at night is also important. Find the rules for a healthy sleep environment here.
Cognitive Behavior Therapy
Proven to be equally or more effective as medication in certain circumstances, this practical, goal-oriented therapy can help you find the attitudes, thinking and behavior behind your insomnia, change those patterns and so change the way you feel. It can teach you how to eliminate and control the negative thoughts and actions that keep you awake.
Over-the-counter medication for insomnia is not intended for long-term use, and can cause side effects as well as becoming addictive.
You and your physician at St. Luke’s will determine if any prescription medications might work for your insomnia, knowing that, as always, the benefits must outweigh the risks. Short-term medication might be prescribed while you learn to adjust your sleep environment or go through CBT for long-term results.