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Insomnia: Its Dangers and its Causes

The importance of getting enough sleep cannot be stressed strongly enough: when a person suffers from sleep deprivation they are operating at an extreme disadvantage in terms of happiness and mental acuity, and if their sleep debt builds for more than a few days the dangers of something disastrous happening increase dramatically.  Unfortunately, just as sleep is one of the first things that people are willing to sacrifice when it comes to a tug of war between social or work obligations and getting enough rest, the same lack of understanding of sleep’s importance can mean that a person who experiences repeated bouts of insomnia dismisses the problem as insignificant. When insomnia strikes for more than a few days, it is essential that its cause is found and it is treated.

There are two major categories into which insomnia can fall, though there are a number of types that don’t fall into them. Transient insomnia is the type that only lasts for a night or two, whereas chronic insomnia can go on for far longer, extending in some people beyond months and into years. In most cases people have a run of two or three nights in which they are either unable to fall asleep or stay asleep, and then they return to their normal sleep pattern for a period of days or weeks before the insomnia begins again.

There are three main causes of temporary sleep disturbance that can cause insomnia. They are rapid time zone or schedule change, environmental disturbances or hyperarousal.

Rapid Time Zone/Schedule Change

Traveling across more than a couple of time zones generally wreaks havoc with our ability to sleep because it disrupts our long-established circadian rhythms. The same is true when we are forced to go through a schedule change such as the type that is caused by switching to the night shift at work. Our bodies are accustomed to responding to cues of light and dark that are present in our environment, and when we suddenly shift the time that those cues are present our bodies become confused and unable to sleep when we want to. Most people are able to recover within a few days, but others experience dramatic sleep disruptions that can take a long time to recover from.

 Environmental Disturbances

These are generally of very limited impact, as even though noises are certainly able to wake us up, in most cases they are extremely temporary or limited in their impact. Even people who live near train stations and who therefore have noise that is present on a repetitive basis have been found to become acclimated to the sound and stop hearing it. On the other hand, new parents do not get used to the sound of a crying infant, and the need for sleep in the face of constant disruption can lead to stress and frustration that keep you up even longer than the baby’s needs do.

 Hyperarousal

This is when worry and stress keep you from getting to sleep. Whether it is concern about an upcoming challenge, an illness or the wellbeing of a loved one, national news events or anything else that has your mind racing when you should be sleeping, you are not alone. More than half of the people who complain of insomnia indicate that they are unable to sleep because they are compelled to think about something. In some cases this is not worry but excitement, such as when you are anticipating an exciting or happy event.

In all these types of transient insomnia, the cause is obvious and can therefore be overcome with relative ease by eliminating the causative problem. Napping is not a solution, as in most cases (especially when the insomnia is caused by hyperarousal) the problem is still present and lying down without anything else to occupy your thoughts is likely to bring the stress, worry or excitement back into the forefront.  It is actually when a person who has been struggling from insomnia is distracted that they are likely to fall asleep, which is why so many sleep deprived people suffer accidents while driving or doing a boring and repetitive task.

One of the most important questions to ask when somebody is having problems with persistent, chronic insomnia is whether their problem involves an inability to fall asleep or to stay asleep. There is much to be learned about the cause of a sleep problem with the answer to that question.  When a person isn’t able to fall asleep it is likely because their biological clock is off and their body is telling the to be alert when they want to be asleep. This is called sleep-onset insomnia, or delayed sleep-phase syndrome (DSPS).

When a person who complains of insomnia reports that they are waking up too early, it can be caused by a number of things. In some cases the early waking is caused by depression, while in other cases the biological clock may be off and simply running too early rather than (or in addition to) too late. This early awakening, the exact opposite of the inability to fall asleep at night, is called advanced sleep-phase syndrome (ASPS). When the biological clock has gotten off kilter, whether it is set to make you feel alert and wakeful too early, too late, or both, sleep scientists have been able to restore a normal and appropriate sleep cycle through the use of bright light boxes. Patients who sit in front of these boxes for a period of a couple of hours a day are able to restore their body’s circadian rhythm and return to a normal sleep cycle.  Another solution that is less obtrusive is a pair of glasses that emit light to the retina through the use of fiber optics built into the frames. These are highly portable and not as disruptive to a person’s schedule as the time consuming treatment of sitting in front of a station of light boxes.

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