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What is Insomnia?

What is regarded as a good night's sleep?

Experts recommend an average of 8 hours sleep a night. If you average 6 hours sleep a night during the week, 9 hours a night on weekends will be needed to make up the deficit.

As our lifestyles have changed, we have become more accustomed to fewer hours of sleep. In the early 20th century people averaged 9 hours sleep per night. Today the average is 7 hours.

Is sleep necessary?

Genetically the body is not designed to be awake at night. During deep sleep, one of the three recognised sleep phases, the body is believed to repair and replenishe itself. 

What is insomnia?

Insomnia affects people in different ways:

  • Difficulty falling asleep
  • Interrupted sleep
  • Wakening early

Who gets insomnia and who is at risk?

Over 90% of the population will experience insomnia at some point. For most it will be a passing event. For 30% of the population insomnia will be recurring and become a chronic problem.

  • Women appear to be more prone to insomnia than men.
  • Insomnia can result in accidents, reduced productivity at work and may also contribute to worsening other medical and mental health conditions.
  • It can be transient, intermittent or chronic.
  • It may involve restless or interrupted sleep, a reduction in the usual time you spend sleeping or, in rare cases, complete wakefulness.

There are many causes of insomnia:

  • Emotional distress
  • Overusing caffeine found in coffee, colas and energy or smart drinks, nicotine, medications, herbal remedies, and alcohol.
  • Insomnia may also result from sedatives prescribed to relieve it.
  • Changes to routine in your body clock. Which may result from an extra long afternoon nap or late-night partying, changing time zones, shift work, studying or reading all night.
  • Noise, temperature variations, bright lights and unfamiliar surroundings can also cause transient and intermittent insomnia.
  • Many illnesses, such as ulcers, depression, diabetes, kidney disease, heart failure, Parkinson's disease and hyperthyroidism, can lead to chronic insomnia.
  • Shortness of breath from asthma or other medical problems, heartburn, frequent trips to the bathroom and chronic pain, from arthritis or leg cramps, can also cause sleep problems.
  • Insomnia may be associated with an underlying psychiatric condition, such as depression or schizophrenia. Early morning waking is common in some acutely depressed people.
  • Other sleep disorders may also lead to chronic insomnia. Sleep apnea (snoring with numerous or prolonged breathing pauses during sleep), narcolepsy (inability to control staying awake or falling asleep), periodic leg and arm movements during sleep (the muscles twitch or jerk excessively), or restless legs syndrome (an overwhelming need to move the legs) can all interfere with sleep.
  • Eating a meal and exercising prior to going to bed can also cause insomnia.
  • Loss of energy and enthusiasm, problems with memory and concentration, feeling ill, sleepy and frustrated are all problems that can result from insomnia.

People with insomnia often suffer from:

  • Difficulty falling asleep and maintaining sleep, or waking up too early.
  • Waking up feeling unrefreshed or drowsy, daytime sleepiness, forgetfulness and trouble concentrating.
  • In severe cases of insomnia, people may feel fatigued, depressed, anxious or irritable.

How is insomnia diagnosed?

Insomnia should be diagnosed by your doctor and will require a physical exam and taking into account medical history. A diary of sleep patterns, past experiences with insomnia and levels of stress will all be considered. Interviews with sleeping partners are also used as they can often provide information that the person suffering from is not aware of.

If there is evidence of a sleep disorder, such as sleep apnea, your doctor may recommend a sleep study.

How is insomnia treated?

Relaxation techniques, changing the sleep environment, changes to diet, reducing caffeine intake, herbal remedies and prescription medication can all be used to treat insomnia.

Prescription medications should only be used in consultation with your doctor.