Movies and television have given us a somewhat skewed idea of insomnia. The main character in the cult film "Fight Club," for instance, is an extreme example of an insomniac. However, insomnia is much more common than most people realize.
"It's one of the most common sleep disorders," said Dr. Michelle Drerup, a psychologist with the Cleveland Clinic. According to Drerup, about one-third of the adult population suffers from occasional or intermittent insomnia, while 10 percent of the population suffers from chronic insomnia.
But what exactly does it mean to be an insomniac? A person suffering from insomnia, Drerup said, has problems falling asleep at night (for 30 minutes or more), wakes up several times a night (for 30 minutes or more), or wakes up too early in the morning and cannot get back to sleep. "Everybody has difficulty sleeping on occasion," Drerup said, but these problems must occur three or more nights a week for a month or longer to be considered insomnia.
The causes of insomnia vary. Drerup explained that insomnia can be caused by medications such as steroids, weight loss supplements, or decongestants; by medical conditions, especially those that involve pain, such as fibromyalgia or arthritis; or by mental health issues such as anxiety or depression.
The biggest contributor, however, is stress, often related to work, health, or family issues. Drerup said that stress can cause people to lie awake at night thinking or worrying about their problems because they can't turn their minds off. "People end up laying in bed not sleeping, but not doing anything else," she said, explaining that insomniacs don't necessarily watch TV all night. Insomniacs then begin to worry about not getting enough sleep, which only increases the stress. "It becomes a vicious cycle," Drerup said.
This vicious cycle doesn't just happen at night, either. "Even though it's a problem at nighttime, it ends up leading to reduced functioning and difficulties during the daytime," said Drerup. "Most people report that they feel very fatigued and tired." This fatigue can affect concentration, memory, and even mood, causing irritability that can strain relationships.
Tips for insomniacs
- Go to sleep at the same time each night and get up at the same time each morning
- Avoid caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol late in the day
- Get regular exercise
- Don't eat a heavy meal late in the day
- Make your bedroom comfortable
- Follow a routine to help you relax before sleep
- Avoid using your bed for anything other than sleep or sex.
- If you can't fall asleep and don't feel drowsy, get up and read or do something that is not overly stimulating until you feel sleepy
- If you find yourself lying awake worrying about things, try making a to-do list before you go to bed
Drerup explained that insomnia can also lead to depression and can cause sufferers to be less active, both physically and socially. "Everything becomes part of the cycle," she said. Work performance can also be affected, causing even more stress. "That becomes part of the problem," said Drerup. "Then they get more anxious about the next night of sleep."
Jeff Butts, 37, of Warren, suffers from insomnia, but his insomnia is caused by an underlying medical condition, restless legs syndrome. Butts's condition can keep him up for up to several hours at night. "It's mostly when I first lay down," he said, adding that he often has trouble going back to sleep if something wakes him up.
Like other insomnia sufferers, though, Butts feels the effects the day after a bad night's sleep. He said he often has a hard time concentrating or staying focused and sometimes catches himself dozing in class or a meeting. He can also be irritable at times. "When you're tired, you're naturally a little touchy and impatient," he said.
There are things anyone can do to help prevent insomnia. Drerup first and foremost recommends that people limit their caffeine intake and avoid daytime naps, both of which can hinder sleep at night. These are both things that people do to relieve the effects of sleep trouble in the short term, but they have negative long-term effects. Drerup also warns against sleeping in on the weekends, which often leads to sleep troubles on Sunday night. "Try to keep the same wake time every morning," recommended Drerup.
Another way to prevent insomnia is to properly prepare for sleep. Drerup suggests taking an hour before bedtime to relax and prepare for sleep, which means avoiding the computer, phone, and work during that time. Avoid TV in bed, and don't stay in bed if you're not sleeping, Drerup said, which will only make you more frustrated. Watching the clock is a bad idea, too, as it just builds pressure to sleep.
While these strategies and tips may work for people with mild or occasional insomnia, sufferers of more severe insomnia may need to see a specialist trained in behavioral techniques. Drerup, for example, uses cognitive behavioral therapy to help patients correct problematic behaviors and deal with anxiety.
Some patients come to Drerup on medication for their insomnia, but she explained that medication is only a short-term fix. "My goal is usually to get people off medications," said Drerup. "The idea is to break the insomnia cycle."