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Insomnia and Sleep Disorders
The world is an increasingly challenging place. Every paper and news site carries stories of economic doom and gloom. Even high street giants are closing their doors. Job losses are the spectre haunting boardrooms, offices and shop floors. Is it any wonder that people become worried, sometimes to the point of panic, about employment security and personal finances? Many work twice as hard to ensure that, should the axe of redundancy fall, they will be spared. Their vulnerability dominates their every waking thought, and that wakefulness can sometimes persist into the very time the mind should be resting.
It’s not just money and job security worries which interfere with our ability to nod off. Most of us suffer from insomnia at one time or another for an infinite number of reasons, and for many the problem will be a temporary or infrequent blip. However, when sleeplessness persists and expands into hours spent staring at the clock, almost every night, it becomes a sleep disorder which can potentially have a serious impact upon both mental and physical health.
Facts about insomnia:
About 1 in 3 adults will suffer from insomnia at some point in their life, experiencing one or more of the different types: getting off to sleep, waking up in the middle of the night, sometimes multiple times, or waking up too early in the morning.
Insomnia is more common in women and more often reported in later life.
A common misconception is that we need less sleep as we get older. This is not true. We need the same amount. It just gets harder to stay asleep for some people.
The amount of sleep an individual needs is different from one person to another. Ex British Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously claimed that he could function on no more than five hours’ sleep a night, but something in the range of 7-9 hours is more normal for an adult in order to maintain optimum physical and cognitive function.
Causes of sleep problems:
There are many causes of insomnia. Some cases may have a physical cause, such as an underlying medical condition; some may be related to drug or alcohol intake, or prescribed medicines. Factors like diet, lifestyle, age, and your physical environment also play a part. However, a significant majority of insomnia cases stem from anxiety, worry, or depression.
Symptoms of insomnia:
Most people will be familiar with the symptoms of sleep deprivation which include mood swings, low motivation, poor memory and concentration, low energy levels, co-ordination problems, spatial awareness, and difficulty with judgment and decision-making. Perhaps more worrying however is the impact long-term sleeplessness can have on our physical wellbeing. Prolonged lack of sleep can lead to health problems such as headaches, IBS, weight gain, and lowered immune system function, which in turn can lead to serious illness. There are additional major downsides to insomnia, such as the impact low mood and irritability can have on our ability to work and upon professional and personal relationships.
Why do we need to sleep?
Scientists still don’t fully understand the function of sleep. However, there are several commonly-held theories, that are widely accepted which include:
* Giving your brain essential ‘downtime,’ and allowing the synapses to rest (the brain uses up to 80 percent of its energy in synaptic activity).
* Repair and restoration, with two types of sleep REM and NREM addressing physiological and cellular regeneration respectively.
There have been many studies in recent years which seem to illustrate that repair of tissue, muscle growth, and protein synthesis only ever occur during sleep, and that a reduction in these functions through sleep deprivation can have a massively damaging effect upon immune function, in turn leading to illness and even death.
*Memory and learning. Some scientists believe that sleep is necessary in order to process the information an individual has been exposed to during wakefulness and to transfer this data into long-term memory. This could be an explanation for why memory is adversely affected by sleep deprivation. A recent article published by Harvard University stated that ‘the quantity and quality of sleep have a profound impact on learning and memory.’
A sleep-deprived person will experience difficulty in focusing attention and will therefore have problems learning in the first place, and as sleep seems to play a role in transferring learned information into the long-term memory area of the brain, even if information has been acquired, it may not be retained.
Treatment for insomnia
Many people will have tried traditional and commonsense sleep disorder remedies such as warm baths and milky drinks at bedtime, not eating heavy meals late at night, and avoiding a sedentary lifestyle, but if these measures don’t work, patients often turn to their GP. A doctor’s first course of action will usually be to advise relaxation techniques, perhaps in combination with a programme of exercise. However, in acute cases, a medical practitioner will nearly always prescribe drug treatment, usually starting out with a mild sedative, and then bringing in stronger drugs if the patient fails to respond. It should be pointed out though that while useful in times of crisis, this treatment can only be regarded as a short-term solution because sleeping tablets only treat the wakefulness aspect of the condition, but do not treat the underlying causes. An additional problem is that sleeping tablets are often highly addictive, which is why GPs usually only prescribe them for a maximum of a few weeks.
Recent studies taking in historical records have revealed that the idea of sleeping solidly through the night for around 8 hours is a recent concept and may even be unnatural. However, irrespective of whether we sleep in a solid block or two chunks of 3-4 hours, all the evidence states that human beings must regularly get the amount of sleep that’s right for them in order to function properly and for the body to repair itself overnight. Therefore, if an overactive mind is keeping you awake over and over again, it may be time to speak to a psychotherapist who can explore the psychological causes of your insomnia, such as anxiety, depression, or stress and help you change your way of thinking so that your responses to stress are altered.
Article: Insomnia and Sleep Disorders by Rachael Magowan
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