Insomnia occurs in up to 10 percent of adults and up to 25 percent of elderly adults and appears slightly more common among women.
The cause of primary insomnia can be different for each individual but often involves a preoccupation with the inability to sleep or excessive worry about sleep, which in turns causes the individual to not sleep.
In other words, one of the main causes of insomnia, perhaps the main cause, is extreme worry about not sleeping itself, which drives hormonal and neurotransmitter “fight/flight” responses into a vicious cycle.
The criteria for a diagnosis of primary insomnia includes…a difficulty falling asleep, remaining asleep, or receiving restorative sleep for a period no less than one month.
This disturbance in sleep must cause significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important functions and does not appear exclusively during the course of another mental or medical disorder, during times of obvious, acute psychosocial distress, or during the use of alcohol, medication, or other substances.
Why do we need to sleep?
The question of why we even need to sleep is a question that has puzzled scientists for centuries and the answer is that no one really knows for sure.
Obviously the body repairs and rebuilds itself physically during that “downtime” when there are no other demands during wakeful hours to fulfill. Mammals may have survived better by quietly hiding at night when predators could be lurking about, or by conserving calories when foraging is more difficult at night.
The immune system has an opportunity to reprogram its cellular army. The brain files away the day’s events into longer-term memory.
Spiritually, Eckhard Tolle suggests that when we sleep we take a journey into “the Unmanifest” and when we enter the phase of dreamless sleep we merge with “the Source,” from which we draw “vital energy” that sustains us. Psychologists believe that we try to work out conflicts during dream states, which we have accrued during the day.
Everyone needs sleep but that need varies widely from person to person.
What happens when we DON’T sleep?
Everyone is familiar with the after-effects of just one night without sleep:
- lack of tolerance,
- impaired concentration,
- and shortened attention span.
With continued lack of sleep, the part of the brain that controls language, memory, and a sense of time is affected.
In fact, 17 hours of sustained wakefulness leads to a decrease in performance equivalent to a blood alcohol level of 0.05% (two glasses of wine).
In other words, lack of sleep has a serious effect on our brain’s ability to function on our “A Game.”
How much sleep do we need?
There is not a set time that everyone needs to sleep at night. People like to sleep anywhere from 5 to 11 hours, with the average being 7.75 hours.
Jim Horne from the Loughorough University Sleep Research Centre has a simple answer though: “The amount of sleep that we require is what we need in order to not to be sleepy in the daytime”.
10 tricks to leave your sleep problems behind
Power naps especially after meals can help digestion and provide a break from your sympathetic, fight/flight, anxiety-producing nervous system, which can also allow you to regenerate cortisol and neurotransmitters to help cope with the following period of work or activity.
On the other hand, naps can make your need for sleep at night to diminish preventing some from getting “a full night’s sleep” which can be annoying.
2) Slash the stimulants:
Limit caffeine, nicotine and alcohol within 6-8 hours of sleeping if possible.
Although alcohol may initially act as a sedative, the rebound withdrawal has an opposite effect. Alcohol inhibits ADH (anti-diuretic hormone), which can lead to a diuretic effect causing an interruption in sustained sleep.
If you have suffered from insomnia the previous night or two, pay careful attention to this advice about limiting psychotropic chemicals on the subsequent day so that you can get a good night’s sleep and catch up on sleep deprivation.
Exercise during the day, ideally incorporating brief periods of intensive exertion, is very helpful because studies have proven that this alternating pattern of exercise more effectively diminishes the sympathetic fight/flight response.
In other words, our ancient nervous system thus exercised believes that we have successfully eluded the predator, survived, and are now safe, so it allows us to have a good, well-earned, night’s sleep. However, evening workouts can be stimulating because your sympathetic nervous system believes that the “danger” which required you to “run for your life” persists, causing us to stay on guard for some hours until the coast is clear.
4) Stop late night snacking:
Generally avoid a full stomach before going to bed. Give your stomach time to digest a meal before trying to go to sleep.
Keep your dinners well balanced and light. If a meal is consumed at bedtime, which can help some people sleep, try to keep it light and protein based in order to avoid blood sugar drops. Low blood sugar can cause you to wake up hungry during the night, which is another cause of fight/flight, sympathetic emergency.
5) 2 hour drinks cutoff:
Stopping the consumption of fluids 2 hours before bedtime in order to avoid bathroom trips during the night may be helpful for some insomniacs who have a hard time resuming sleep once they have hit the john.
Also, it may help to empty your bladder just before you go to sleep.
6) Distract yourself:
If you do wake up and can’t get back to sleep, don’t just lie in bed and beat yourself up. Distract yourself with reading, or do some routine, non-stimulating activity, which does not require innovative thinking.
As soon as the dream or worrisome topic falls away by distracting your mind with something else, your natural sleep cycle hormones will kick back in. The quiet nighttime hours are great times to meditate.
7) Seek out sunlight:
Expose your face to bright sunlight for 15 minutes first thing in the morning. Eat your breakfast outside. It can stimulate your pituitary gland and set your inner clock to wake you up to face the day.
This may also be a good time to do a morning meditation, stretching or yoga to set your sympathetic tone for the day at more manageable levels.
8) Create a sleep cocoon:
Create a healthy sleeping environment. Turn your bedroom into a healthy, calming sanctuary, a “bedroom oasis” to retreat and recuperate from the stressors of our daily lives.
Make your bedroom a place for sleep only. Office or entertainment equipment does not belong in a sleep sanctuary. Examine your bedroom and consider relocating everything that does not specifically promote calmness and support sleep. Anything stimulating or mentally associated with stress can set off a little of your fight light nervous system.
9) Keep it dark:
The room should be kept dark. If you work nights and must sleep during the day, tape aluminum foil on the windows to make the room absolutely dark, which tricks your pineal gland into believing its actually dark.
Most of these suggestions are about tricking these ancient physiological parts of ourselves into behaving. If you get up for something you must attend to or you have to use the toilet, use the minimum amount of light, perhaps a nightlight, needed to safely get around. Just a few seconds of typical lamplight can cause your brain to completely stop making melatonin, one of the most important sleep hormones.
10) Go natural:
Choose healthy, natural materials for your bed: use cotton bedding and sleepwear. Consider a cervical support pillow. Avoid metal coils or electric blankets, which can trigger off unsettling neurological changes in your brain.
Charles Gant, MD, PhD, served as medical director at Tully Hill Hospital, where he achieved a remarkable 83 percent success rate in ending patients' addictions. Dr. Gant has a private practice in Washington, DC, and is author of End Your Addiction Now (Square One Publishers, 2010). Learn more about him at www.CEGant.com.