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Insomnia isn't just an annoyance. This can have a serious impact on your health.

Erica Zaar first saw a doctor about her sleeplessness or insomnia when she was 9 years old. “I mostly remember asking him the question of how much soda I drank,” she said. Unfortunately, the doctors were not able to help him. The Tsar’s insomnia followed him into adulthood, with his mental health problems worsening along the way.

“Insomnia was a contributing factor to my lifelong anxiety and depression before I learned to manage it,” Tsar said. “I remember many dark nights almost feeling suicidal.”

Insomnia can take a toll on physical and mental health, making existing health problems worse and increasing the risk of chronic illness down the road. And it can also affect your ability to function during the day. Fortunately, there are things you can do to get more and better sleep.

Sleep disorders including insomnia affect millions

Sleep disorders, which are any conditions that cause changes in the way you sleep, affect approximately 70 million Americans. While there are more than 80 types of sleep disorders, the most common are insomnia, sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome and narcolepsy.

Insomnia can be further divided into two types: acute and chronic. Acute insomnia is a short-term problem that lasts for days to weeks and is often accompanied by a specific stressor – an anxiety that keeps you awake at night.

Chronic insomnia is a long-term condition, lasting for months or longer. Like acute insomnia, it can be linked to stressful situations, says Dr. Smita Patel, an integrative neurologist and sleep medicine physician, member of the iNeuro Institute and HealthyWomen’s Health Advisory Council (WHAC). There may be other reasons, Patel said: irregular sleep schedules, poor sleep hygiene, frequent nightmares, mental health disorders, underlying physical problems, medications, a loud or restless bed partner, or other sleep disorders.

With both acute and chronic insomnia, people find it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep to the extent that it affects their ability to function during the day. It’s important to note that insomnia is not the same as lack of sleep, Patel said.

“Typically, people with insomnia want to sleep, go to bed at regular times, etc., but usually they can’t fall asleep or stay asleep, or wake up too early,” she said. In other words, waking up too late—watching your favorite show—doesn’t count as insomnia.

hormone changes, sleep disturbances

According to Patel, women are twice as likely to have difficulty falling asleep or maintaining sleep than men, and hormones play a significant role in this gender difference. Because estrogen and progesterone affect sleep, insomnia is more common in the years before menstruation and after menopause, when hormonal changes are most extreme.

Insomnia is also a major issue for women during perimenopause, the transitional period leading up to menopause. In one study, 31% to 42% of perimenopausal women reported experiencing insomnia, with symptoms worsening as the women approached menopause.

Risk factors for insomnia include stress, nutrition

Stress is one of the biggest risk factors for insomnia, as many of us have learned the hard way during the COVID-19 pandemic. About 3 million people in the US experienced “insomnia” during the first five months of 2020 – a 58% increase over the same time frame over the past three years. Whether the stress is immediate (worry about a test the next day) or chronic (worry about the future), it can keep you from falling or staying asleep.

Nutrition may also play a role in insomnia. Patel points to research showing that a diet high in sugar and trans fat and low in fiber can negatively affect your ability to fall and sleep. The relationship between nutrition and insomnia is often double-edged, as lack of sleep can make you crave foods that make insomnia worse.

Other risk factors for insomnia include being over the age of 60, having a family history of insomnia, and not having a regular sleep schedule. There also appears to be an association between mental disorders, such as depression and anxiety, and insomnia. “Many people with chronic insomnia have a mental disorder, and most people with a mental disorder have insomnia,” Patel said.

Saundra Jain, PsyD, LPC, a psychotherapist and assistant clinical affiliate at the University of Texas at Austin and a member of HealthWomen’s WHAC, said she often hears about problems associated with sleep deprivation in her psychotherapeutic practice. “The data support that sleep difficulties are very common in people who suffer from mental health challenges such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and other conditions,” Jain said.

long term effects of insomnia

In addition to worsening pre-existing health problems, insomnia can increase your risk of developing new ones. Sleep deprivation is associated with depression and other mood disorders, chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and obesity.

Insomnia can also be linked to brain problems, including memory loss and difficulty concentrating. “In the long term, poor sleep can put someone at higher risk of cognitive decline and dementia,” Patel said.

Sleep helps the brain conduct important housekeeping functions, clearing potentially dangerous substances such as the beta-amyloid proteins that are linked to Alzheimer’s disease. Many factors contribute to the risk of Alzheimer’s and lack of sleep may be one of these factors. “Studies have found that even a single night’s sleep can increase the amount of beta amyloid in the brain,” Patel said.

taking steps to sleep better

Good News? Even the most severe insomnia can be managed. Patel and Jain recommend these tips for better sleep:

set a constant wake-up time, The time you wake up has a big impact on the way you sleep. Patel suggests getting up at the same time every day — even on weekends. Once you wake up, tell your body it’s time to start the day by exposing yourself to bright light as quickly as possible. Natural light is best, but a full-spectrum light box also works.

Add movement to your routine. “Many people, especially those working from home, are not moving adequately during the day,” Patel said. And the Tsar said, “I never sleep faster nor sleep better than when I’ve done good physical activity during the day.”

Eat less carbs and caffeine, Since high-carbohydrate diets are associated with poor sleep quality, people with insomnia may benefit from eating fewer complex carbs. As far as caffeine is concerned, Patel said it is better to consume it early in the day if you are sensitive to it.

seek professional help, Jain explained, that insomnia often causes extreme anxiety about not falling asleep, which further promotes poor sleep and causes a negative cycle. She recommends cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I), a program that has helped many of her patients break the cycle. Medication to help treat insomnia may also be an option.

taking insomnia once a night

Although he still has occasional sleepless nights, the Tsar is no longer at the mercy of insomniacs. With consistent practice of techniques like the ones suggested above (including the help of a good therapist), the Tsar is getting the rest he needs. Where previously she worried she’d never sleep again, now she knows she will—even if it takes a little work to get there.

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