Insomnia: Symptoms, Treatment, and When to See Your Doctor

Sleep is essential for optimal health. If you’re not able to fall asleep or you have trouble staying asleep, you may have insomnia. This could be temporary, or it can also be caused by an underlying condition. Here are a list of causes and treatments.

10 minute read

Last Updated July 17, 2020

Insomnia: Symptoms, Treatment, and When to See Your Doctor

Insomnia is defined as the inability to fall asleep or to stay asleep. As a result, you do not get the required amount of sleep for optimal health, and this can impact your life. 

Sleep is necessary for your body to rest and recharge from the day’s activities, and without a restful sleep, you remain tired both mentally and physically. Over time and without treatment, insomnia can have a serious impact on your health, and it increases your risk for serious and fatal diseases. 

What is Insomnia?

Insomnia, or sleep deprivation, is defined as not having the required amount of sleep each night. Primary insomnia is insomnia that is not a symptom of another condition. 

If there is an underlying condition causing insomnia, it is classified as secondary insomnia. Secondary insomnia is the most common type of sleeplessness. Both types can be acute (lasting only a few days) or chronic (long-term). 

The lack of sleep can have a number of negative effects on your body. Over an extended period of time, these effects of sleep deprivation can be dangerous.

Symptoms of Sleep Deprivation or Insomnia

Sleeplessness and an ongoing lack of sleep, as well as daytime sleepiness, are the symptoms of insomnia. Other symptoms you will experience include:

♦ Yawning
♦ Irritability
♦ Fatigue
♦ Depressed mood
♦ Difficulty learning or concentrating
♦ Lack of motivation
♦ Clumsiness
♦ Increased appetite (carbohydrate cravings)

Sleep Deprivation Stages

Not getting enough sleep eventually takes its toll on you. Sleep deprivation occurs in two distinct stages.

 Acute Sleep Deprivation: This occurs after one or more nights without sleep. You will feel tired, have trouble focusing, have a decreased attention span, and difficulty staying awake. Acute sleep deprivation can lead to hallucinations, memory lapses, paranoia, and increased risk for accidents.

♦ Chronic Sleep Deprivation: Sleep deprivation becomes chronic when you are not getting sleep for days, weeks, and months. As a result, your risk for serious diseases like heart disease, diabetes, psychiatric disorders, and dementia increases. 

Effects of Insomnia

Sleep deprivation affects your entire body, and over time, the damage caused can be serious, and it can increase your risk for serious disease. Common effects of sleep deprivation include:

♦ A weakened immune system, so it can take longer to recover from illness

♦ Increased risk for heart disease because sleep helps heal your blood vessels and maintain blood pressure and blood sugar levels.

♦ Reduced hormone production 

Increased weight as hormones that control hunger and fullness are altered

♦ Increased risk of accidents

♦ Poor impulse control

Increased levels of stress hormones and inflammation

Insomnia can increase the risk of heart disease, but it can also be a symptom of heart problems. Common symptoms of heart failure can cause sleep disruption. Orthopnea or shortness of breath when lying down can make it difficult to fall asleep. Sleep apnea is also common with heart failure, and it makes heart failure worse. There is a vicious cycle between insomnia and heart problems that can be a serious risk to your health if left untreated.

What Causes Insomnia?

Sleep deprivation or insomnia can be caused by a number of factors. Some are not serious, and you can return to healthy sleep with a few lifestyle changes. 

Other causes could be health conditions and disease, and these will require treatment and medical attention. The most common causes of sleep deprivation that you can control include:

♦ Stress 
♦ Depression
♦ Stimulants
♦ Sleep habits
♦ Obesity
♦ Environmental changes (weather)

Medical conditions that can cause insomnia or are associated with sleep deprivation and require attention include:

Sleep apnea: Sleep apnea is a sleeping disorder caused by irregular breathing patterns. This disrupts sleep and causes you to feel tired in the morning. If left untreated, chronic sleep deprivation results. 

Chronic pain: Ongoing pain as the result of a disease (such as arthritis) or injury can keep you from sleeping. Typically, if the pain keeps you awake for one night, it will keep you awake again and again. 

Diabetes: Hypoglycemia or low blood sugar levels can cause insomnia. When blood glucose drops, hormones are released to regulate these levels, resulting in an inability to fall asleep. Sleep deprivation also increases your risk of diabetes by increasing insulin resistance.

Heart disease: A lack of sleep can increase your C-reactive protein levels, which are released along with inflammation. When these are both elevated, as with chronic sleep deprivation, your risk for heart disease significantly increases.

Cancer: There is some evidence that a lack of sleep can increase your risk for certain cancers. It is thought that disruption to the circadian rhythm is a risk for cancer because your internal clock regulates and affects so many bodily functions.

GERD: When you experience heartburn at night, your sleep can be disrupted. Sleep deprivation also increases the severity of GERD and heartburn.

Hyperthyroidism: An overactive thyroid speeds up the processes in your body, causing nervousness and anxiety, and this can prevent you from sleeping. 

Menopause: Hot flashes and night sweats commonly associated with menopause can be uncomfortable and disrupt sleep. The amount of time you sleep may not be affected, but the quality of sleep you will be getting is reduced.

Restless leg syndrome: This condition causes an uncontrollable urge to move your legs as the result of an unusual sensation. It typically happens at night, and therefore interrupts your sleep or interferes with you falling asleep. 

Treatment for Insomnia

Treatment is only needed when you cannot get sleep as a result of physical or psychological causes. A sleep therapist and your doctor can help guide you and offer techniques on getting sleep. 

Behavioral and cognitive approaches, as well as medications, are the most common types of treatment for sleep deprivation. Medications are only used if the non-medical treatments below do not prove to be effective.

Relaxation techniques such as mindfulness, deep breathing, and guided imagery
Stimulation control, which involves controlling bedtime routines and sleeping patterns 
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which works to help you understand and change the thought patterns behind unhelpful behaviors

You can also incorporate these tips to help you develop better sleep habits, so you can start getting more quality sleep each night.

♦ Avoid eating 2 to 3 hours before bed.
♦ Engage in regular exercise during the day.
♦ Go to bed when you are tired.
♦ Follow the same sleep routine on the weekends.
♦ Avoid electronic devices before bed.
♦ Make your room comfortable, dark, and at a cool temperature.
♦ Take a bath or shower before bed.

Natural Treatment for Insomnia

Insomnia is associated with an increased risk of heart disease. There are several things you can try to help promote sleep and reduce this risk. Adding exercise to your daily routine, following a balanced diet, and reducing stress through meditation can all help. It also helps to follow a bedtime routine to ease your body into sleep each night. 

Put all technology away, maintain a cool temperature in the bedroom, do not eat three hours before bed, and take a hot bath or shower. 

In addition to lifestyle changes, you can add natural supplements to your diet. 

Lion’s mane mushroom: This mushroom is known to calm the nervous system and reduce anxiety. As a result, it is a natural promoter of calm, which can help you sleep at night. 
Capsicum extract: Capsicum plays a role in the biosynthesis of serotonin. This neurotransmitter supports the central nervous system, regulating mood and the sleep cycle. Consuming capsicum can, therefore, help regulate your sleep and reduce insomnia.
Niacin: Niacin boosts heart health and promotes sleep naturally. This B vitamin helps regulate tryptophan levels in the body, which is important in maintaining sleep. It also increases the effectiveness of this essential amino acid. With regards to the heart, niacin reduces cholesterol levels and inflammation, both of which increase the risk of heart disease.

When to See Your Doctor

Chronic insomnia can increase your risk for serious diseases and illness, and it can also be caused by several underlying conditions. If you notice that you are not sleeping, and there is no obvious reason such as a traumatic or stressful event, then you need to consult your doctor. 

Sleep is essential to your overall health and longevity, so the causes of your insomnia need to be identified and treated right away, so you can get the rest you need.

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