Insomnia and the Dangers of Not Enough Sleep

main in bed staring up at ceiling

What is insomnia?

People with insomnia have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep or they wake up too early in the morning. They may not get enough sleep or have poor-quality sleep that affects their daily lives.

Insomnia is the most common sleep complaint. More than one-quarter of the U.S. population report occasionally not getting enough sleep, while nearly 10 percent experience chronic insomnia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Chronic (ongoing or long-term) insomnia occurs at least three times a week and lasts for a month or more.

Acute (short-term) insomnia lasts for a few days or maybe weeks. This type of insomnia is common and is often brought on by things like stress at work, family issues, a big exam the next day or a traumatic event.

What causes insomnia?

There are two types of insomnia. Primary insomnia is when a person has sleep problems that are not directly related to any other health condition or problem. The cause of this type of insomnia isn't well understood. Life changes like major upset or long-term stress can trigger primary insomnia.

Most cases of insomnia are secondary, which means a person is having sleep problems because of something else, like a health condition (ex: asthma, depression, heart failure, heartburn) or a side effect of a medication they are taking. Secondary insomnia can also be caused by pain from headache or arthritis disorders or a substance a person is using (like alcohol). Other sleep disorders, like restless leg syndrome, and menopause are also linked to insomnia.

Insomnia affects people of all ages but is more common in older adults and affects more women than men. A lack of sleep can cause you to feel tired when you wake up or during the day. Insomnia can make it hard to focus on tasks and can make you feel anxious, depressed or irritable.

What are the dangers of not getting enough sleep?

Sleep is an important part of our health. A lack of quality sleep can have short- and long-term affects. In the short term, not getting enough sleep can affect judgment, mood and memory skills. The lack of sleep can cause a feeling of fogginess and difficulty concentrating. You risk injury at home, work and on the road.

Regular poor sleep puts you at risk for some serious medical conditions, including obesity, heart disease and diabetes. The continued lack of sleep can cause high blood pressure (hypertension). Depression and other mood disorders are linked to lack of sleep. Sleep deprivation can weaken your immune system.

How to get a better night's sleep

In some cases, lifestyle changes can often help short-term insomnia.

  • Avoid stimulants like caffeine and tobacco, whose effects can last as long as eight hours
  • Be aware of side effects of over-the-counter and prescription medications that can disrupt sleep (ex: some cold and allergy medicines)
  • Follow a routine that helps you wind down and relax before going to bed
  • Go to sleep around the same time and wake up around the same time each day
  • Try to schedule exercise at least five hours before bedtime

Others may consider cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), a structured program that helps you deal with thoughts and actions that cause sleep problems, the underlying causes of insomnia. There are also many different over-the-counter and prescription medications that can be used as sleep aids. Others try to improve sleep with relaxation exercises and meditation.

If you think you have insomnia, talk with your doctor, who may suggest you see a sleep specialist or have a sleep study.

About Doylestown Health

Doylestown Health is a comprehensive healthcare system of inpatient, outpatient and wellness education services connected to meet the health needs of all members of the local and regional community. Doylestown Hospital, the flagship to Doylestown Health has 271 beds and a Medical Staff of more than 435 physicians in over 50 specialties. An independent nonprofit health system, Doylestown Health is dedicated to providing innovative, patient-centered care for all ages.

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