Most people will experience some degree of insomnia every now and then. According to estimates, over 3 in 10 American adults report experience a problem with sleeping every years. For 1 in 10 adults in the United States, insomnia is a chronic problem. There are many reasons why the odd sleepless night may occur. It can sometimes last for a few a days and simple lifestyle measures can be helpful. However, when sleepless nights occur for long periods or recur frequently then chronic insomnia may require medical treatment.
Defining a Sleepless Night
Although the term ‘sleepless night’ infers that a person does not sleep at all during usual sleeping hours at night, this is not always the case. Most of us refer to a sleepless night as having slept for too few hours or having repeatedly disturbed sleep. Irrespective of the type of sleep disturbance, a sleepless night refers to insufficient sleep which is generally defined as sleeping for less than 5 hours in a night.
However, there is a variance in individual sleeping patterns. Some people may require 8 to 9 hours of sleep every night in order to feel rested and function optimally during the day without any degree of sleepiness. For others, 6 to 7 hours may be sufficient. Despite individual differences, it is generally accepted that adults require approximately 7 to 8 hours of sleep daily.
Causes of Sleepless Nights
There a a host of different possible causes for a sleepless night. It may occur on its own without any underlying disorder or it may arise as a symptom of certain diseases like Parkinson’s disease, hyperthyroidism and sleep apnea. Sometimes the exact cause cannot be identified. For most people, the occasional sleeplessness night may be due to diet, lifestyle factors and psychological stress.
Another common cause of sleeplessness that is often ignored is exposure to light. Usually the declining levels of light in the evening causes an increase in the levels of a hormone called melatonin. This hormone is responsible for the feeling of sleepiness and maintaining sleep. In modern life, less time is spent outdoors and the use of artifical lighting can cause disruptions in melatonin levels. This may cause sleepless nights.
Irregular sleep patterns as may occur with night shift work and traveling across different timezones can also affect sleep quality and duration. Certain medication can also affect sleep patterns as a side effect. It is also not uncommon for sleep patterns to change with age. Insomnia in the elderly may occur secondary to various diseases but can also be associated with the physiological changes due to aging.
Read more on causes of insufficient sleep.
There are two possible problems arise with sleep that may result in insomnia. These are difficulty falling asleep (onset insomnia) or staying asleep for a long enough period of time (maintenance insomnia). Sometimes this sleeplessness may occur with certain diseases (comorbid insomnia). It can either occur for a short period (acute insomnia) or persist for long periods of time (chronic insomnia).
Effects of Sleepless Nights
Even a single night of poor quality sleep or a total lack of sleep can cause widespread effects on the body. It can have an effect on physical and mental functioning. This may include fatigue, headaches, disturbances in appetite, impaired senses, difficulty concentrating, irritability and mood swings. With repeated sleep disturbances, other symptoms may arise including abnormal heart rate, blood pressure and blood glucose levels.
Chronic insomnia has been linked to an increased risk of strokes and heart attacks. It has also been linked to obesity and various other diseases including mental health conditions like depression.Therefore the effects of sleepless nights can be debilitating, affect daily functioning, impact on academic and work activities and even affect interpersonal relationships. In the long term, it may also be life threatening.
Read more on signs on insomnia.
Remedies for Sleepless Nights
The following measures should be tried when sleep problems initially arise. However, if it is ongoing then medical treatment may be necessary. It is important to understand that these dietary and lifestyle measures can be very effective and should be the first option.
- Avoid eating at least 2 hours before bedtime. This will help to avoid or at least minimize gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) which is a common digestive condition.
- Prepare the sleeping area and maintain a nighttime routine. This is known as sleep hygiene and involves simple steps such as going to be around the same time and cooling the bedroom before bedtime.
- Exercise daily but not immediately before bedtime. Various studies have shown that aerobic exercise, even for 10 minutes a day, can help improve sleep patterns.
- Do not consume stimulants too close to bedtime. Caffeine intake should be stopped at least 2 hours before sleep. Nicotine should also be minimized before bedtime.
- Try not to have long daytime naps. Although naps may help to maintain energy levels, it should be limited to 20 to 30 minutes. Long naps can disrupt nighttime sleep patterns.
- Spend more time outdoors in the sunlight. This may help with the normal patterns of melatonin secretion which can aid in falling asleep at night.
Medical Treatment for Sleepless Nights
Despite the availability of over-the-counter (OTC) drugs that may be helpful for insomnia, it is always advisable to first seek medical advice. A host of drugs which have varying effects on the central nervous system (CNS) may be used to treat and manage insomnia. It should be used in conjunction with cognitive behavioral therapy, dietary and lifestyle modification and approved medical devices. Drugs for insomnia includes:
- Sedatives and hypnotics: Requires a prescription and should only be used for short periods of time.
- Antidepressants: Requires a prescription and may be used for long term.
- Antihistamines: May not require prescription but is not advised for long term use.
Some prescription drugs for treating and managing insomnia can be addictive and should be used with caution. Excessive use of these drugs at one time (overdose) can result in life threatening complications. Always consult with a medical professional about the proper use of medication for sleep disorders. Do not share these drugs or use above the prescribed dose.