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Can Insomnia Kill?

We all know that sleep is crucial to our quality of life, and even that lack of sleep can have serious health implications and lead to a higher risk of serious conditions, including obesity, cardiovascular problems, diabetes and stroke. But can lack of sleep actually kill you?

To get to the heart of the question, let’s take a look at the most basic sleep disorder, insomnia. Insomnia is a condition that afflicts millions of Americans – somewhere between 10% and 30% of us will likely experience insomnia at some point in our lives. Though we may think of any period of sleeplessness as insomnia, the condition is actually strictly defined as when all three of the following conditions are present: 

  1. You’re having a hard time falling asleep or staying asleep. Difficulty staying asleep may mean waking in the middle of the night or awakening too early in the morning and being unable to fall back to sleep.  The end result is that the sleep that you get is insufficient and you do not feel well rested.
  2. You encounter this situation even when your sleep environment is conducive to sleep – in other words there are no noises, interruptions or other extraneous factors that would be expected to interfere with getting a good night’s sleep.
  3. The situation is having a negative impact on you, whether physically, mentally or emotionally.

Now that we know what insomnia is, let’s take a look at what it does. The most obvious impact that lack of sleep has is the increase in stress and anxiety that is related to bedtime. The more difficult your experience is the more you come to dread it, creating a self-fulfilling cycle that is difficult to break.  This can lead to depression, weight gain, cognitive impairment, and even dementia in extreme cases. Not getting enough sleep can have an impact on your performance at work, at school, your relationships, and in the way that your body functions, most notably on your metabolism. Sleep deprivation can lead to metabolic syndrome, a condition that combines weight gain, elevated cholesterol levels and blood pressure, and high glucose. This can lead to a variety of systemic problems, and even to long term disability.

Though this may sound like an awful lot for a simple lack of sleep, there is science that backs up these concerns. A study from Harvard Medical Center and Brigham and Women’s Hospital that followed over 50,000 men over a several year period paid particular attention to the impact that lack of sleep had on the participants. They were asked whether they experienced difficulty falling asleep, whether they woke up in the middle of the night or too early in the morning, whether they felt rested when they woke up and whether they felt a need to nap during the day. For almost 25%, the answers indicated insomnia some of the time, and 4% reported insomniac symptoms all of the time.

Taking a closer look at the study’s results, researchers were able to determine that for those who experienced insomnia to a greater degree, there was also a higher incidence of physical and mood disorders. The statistics were startling, as those with occasional insomnia were also those with serious health conditions. Ten percent of occasional insomniacs in the study were diabetic, and likewise ten percent had experienced a heart attack. Three percent had suffered a stroke and a full sixteen percent reported having symptoms of depression.  For those with more frequent bouts of insomnia, the numbers were even higher, with 15% having diabetes, 13% having suffered heart attacks, 4% having had stokes and nearly one third reporting periods of depression.

As researchers looked more closely at the data collected in the survey, they found extensive cause for alarm. Moving beyond heart attacks to overall cardiovascular problems there was a 55% greater risk amongst those with trouble sleeping as compared to those who slept well.  Taking a broad view of all types and causes of death, those who reported having difficulty falling asleep had a 25% greater chance of dying, and for those who could not stay asleep or who felt fatigued during the day the increased risk was 24%.  Clearly higher death rates accompanied sleep troubles.

So what can be done? Surely those experiencing insomnia want to stop this trend in its tracks, and the best way to do that is for them to improve the sleep that they’re getting. Unfortunately, people do not perceive lack of sleep as a health problem: they tend to see it as a nuisance and spend their time wishing it away instead of taking action. Being proactive in the face of insomnia is important. Here are some important steps that can be taken immediately in order to improve your chance of getting a good night’s sleep:

  • Stop fighting with yourself about sleep. If you are having a hard time getting to sleep, get up out of bed and do something relaxing like reading a book. Keep the lights low and don’t let yourself get too energized. Then when you are feeling drowsy, go back to bed. Sometimes you have to approach insomnia by forcing yourself to stay awake longer so that you are truly tired when you go to bed, then slowly and methodically push your bedtime a bit earlier each night.
  • Don’t get out of bed until you wake up naturally. This ensures that you are getting the rest that you need.
  • Try to minimize caffeinated drinks. At the very least, stop ingesting them at noon.
  • Make sure that your sleep environment is peaceful, dark, quiet and cool.
  • Stay away from electronic devices for at least two hours prior to going to bed.
  • Write down your reminders and stressors and to-do lists before you go to bed so that they have been addressed and you don’t lie in bed thinking about them.
  • Don’t nap during the day.
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