Losing a few hours of sleep the day before a big presentation or an important interview is a common enough occurrence. So is lying awake due to a mix-up involving your decaf coffee. However, when you’ve tried everything you can to maintain a regular sleep cycle only to have the sandman pass you over night after night, that’s when you might have an insomnia problem.
There’s nothing normal or ordinary about insomnia – this life-destroying sleep disorder may not always have a direct, explainable rationale behind it but the terrible effects it causes to your health and quality of life are as plain as day.
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What insomnia really is
Simply put, insomnia is a sleep disorder which causes one to lose sleep. It comes in various forms: sometimes you lose sleep because you can’t fall asleep. In this case, you are suffering from what is known as “onset insomnia”. On the other hand, there are some people who lose sleep not because they have difficulty falling asleep, but because they have difficulty staying asleep.
If you wake up frequently during the night and stay awake for long periods each time, you are experiencing “maintenance insomnia”. Another way to classify insomnia is by how long the condition lasts. For the luckier ones, insomnia may only last a couple of days or a week. Such cases of acute insomnia usually happen when one experiences sudden trauma or major lifestyle changes. For chronic insomnia though, symptoms persist for more than a month and this is when the effects of the lack of sleep become truly worrying.
The toll insomnia takes on your body
Without sleep, your bodily systems become adversely affected due to the lack of rest – rest it needs in order to recharge and repair the various systems so that they can function properly. Not only will you feel more sluggish than usual, your body also becomes more susceptible to a host of different diseases, some of which are chronic. These are just some of the possible physical conditions that insomnia can contribute to.
• Heart and blood-related conditions
Your heart is never at rest, even when you’re sleeping. Yet, sleep deprivation can still take a toll on your heart’s functions. People who suffer from insomnia are at a higher risk of heart disease and even high blood pressure. Insomnia also increases the chances of experiencing a stroke, which occurs when the flow of oxygen and blood to the brain is cut off due to a ruptured or clogged blood vessel.
• Weakened immune system
Less sleep means your immune system has less time to replace the infection-fighting T-cells, which increases your susceptibility to common illnesses. Every hour of sleep matters to your immune system – getting less than seven hours of sleep almost triples your risk of catching the flu.
The lack of sleep due to insomnia can interfere with your metabolism, which controls the rate at which your body transforms calories from food into energy. Sleep deprivation can lead to chronically elevated cortisol levels which directly impacts metabolic rate, causing it to slow down as a means of conserving energy. This can lead to issues regarding obesity and other weight-related diseases.
• Reduced life expectancy
Whether this is the result of the various of the aforementioned health problems or a separate consequence that can occur even to someone who hasn’t experienced any of the other physical health impacts is still a matter of scientific research. What’s definite and clear is that insomnia decreases the number of years you are expected to live – the risk of an early death increases by as much as 97% in those who have chronic insomnia. There is good reason to believe that the reduction in life expectancy is due in part to the mental impact of insomnia, for these can be just as, if not more severe than the physical repercussions.
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What insomnia does to your brain and mental health
The sleep time that you never got due to insomnia interferes with your brain’s functioning, which affects your mood and makes you vulnerable to depression and other mood-related disorders. If you find yourself singing the blues as an accompaniment to your insomnia, it wouldn’t be a surprise. Poor mood and irritability are very common side-effects of insomnia.
• Insomnia and your social life
The bad mood that results from sleep deprivation makes you feel like shutting yourself off from the world. It’s no wonder that one’s social life is often negatively affected when insomnia hits. All of a sudden, reading social cues becomes harder than usual and can lead to a fair bit of miscommunication. Relationships are often strained when one party suffers from insomnia because the sleep-deprived party becomes much more emotionally volatile and gets upset easily, increasing the risk of arguments and fights. The social stress you experience adds on to your mental burden, resulting in an accumulation of stress and anxiety.
• Insomnia and depression
Being unable to fall asleep at night exacerbates the negative feelings already bottling up, and this leads to a vicious battering of one's mental health. In serious cases, this manifests as psychological disorders characterised by the experiencing of hallucinations, paranoia and deteriorating memory. Other chronic mental disorders could develop as well, such as depression, bipolar disorder and anxiety disorder.
In particular, one British study conducted amongst young adults found that persistent sleep deprivation caused persisting symptoms of mental distress like hallucinations and depression, but at the same time, these symptoms reversed when the amount of sleep increased. The findings may highlight the severe consequences of insomnia, but it also shows that there’s hope in overcoming these mental health conditions. The need to improve mental health wellness is more important now than ever when you consider how pervasive and insidious the damage can be, which despite not being directly life-threatening, can be deadly too.
How insomnia eats away your productivity
It’s almost impossible to perform well without sleep, but insomnia does more than take away your surface abilities to do your job. First of all, the loss in productivity is drastic – research has found that someone with insomnia is twice as unproductive as someone without the disorder. Next, the impact of insomnia on workplace productivity is two-fold. Insomnia directly decreases productivity by weakening one’s ability to focus, but it also indirectly causes productivity loss through the mental disorders that arise due to the lack of sleep.
A recent Dutch study found that insomniacs with anxiety problems or depression missed work in the long term by 2.5 times as much as the average person. Finally, the most crucial thing to note about the loss of productivity due to insomnia is the tragic consequences that could arise as a result of wrong decisions or fatigue-related accidents. A Harvard Research article found that lack of sleep increases the chances of a road accident happening by 4 to 5 times, and it’s not just road accidents. Some of the most famous man-made disasters are a result of human fatigue – some examples include the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown and the Challenger space shuttle explosion.
Insomnia affects your life in many ways beyond the perpetual drowsiness and inability to concentrate. Sure – you could stay focused an hour at a time with the help of a lot of caffeine, but in the long run it’s not going to work. Your physical and mental health will be hit hard, and you won’t be the only one affected. As mentioned earlier, sleep deprivation can ruin your relationships by altering your judgment and mood, and the bad decisions you make while fatigued can have far-reaching consequences.
There’s no way around the issue – you need sleep. Your body needs the sleep to keep itself healthy by fighting short-term illnesses and avoiding chronic ones. Your mind needs the sleep to keep stress and anxiety at bay so that depressive disorders can be avoided, and your mood won’t be affected. Without sleep, you can’t function as well at work and not only do you become more unproductive, you also become prone to making more mistakes, some of which can be costly or dangerous. It is imperative that insomnia be fought, and the solution to take depends on the cause of your insomnia.
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The first step to overcoming insomnia is to evaluate your own lifestyle and try to spot the root causes of the problem. Do you have an irregular sleep schedule? Do you do too much work before bedtime? Are you on any medication that could be affecting your sleep? Understanding the root cause will help you take the right choice of action to overcome insomnia. If you currently have bad sleep habits, practicing good sleep hygiene can help to combat insomnia. Some easy ways to achieve this is by maintaining a regular sleep cycle, syncing your sleep cycle with the normal day and night hours and staying away from blue light from digital devices before bedtime.
However, if you can’t determine the cause of your insomnia, prescribed medicine is the remedy to turn to. Doctors can prescribe sleeping pills or melatonin supplements which could alleviate the symptoms of insomnia in the long run but bear in mind that these could exacerbate existing depressive disorders. For example, Rozerem is a melatonin-based prescription that helps with insomnia but can worsen depression symptoms. On the other hand, some medicine can kill two birds with one stone – Xanax helps one cope with both anxiety and insomnia. Nevertheless, all pharmaceutical medicines should be taken in moderation and with the aim of treating them as short-term solutions.
The only healthy way to manage chronic insomnia in the long run is to make sure that your lifestyle habits are structured in a way that prevents the condition from ever taking root. It all boils down to changing your lifestyle to make sure that you treat sleep as a major priority. One last final suggestion that could help in your battle against insomnia is to consider including exercise in your daily routine – the physical exertion from moderate amounts of exercise has been medically proven to help one sleep better.
With regard to the amount and type of exercise, however, it really depends on the individual. Our Active Health Labs is where you can find sleep and exercise-related advice, tailored just for you. If you've been kept up at night for more occasions than you'd care to admit, let us know!