Insomnia Basics

Overtime, insomnia can be dangerous to your health. Learn what lifestyle factors may be keeping you awake at night.

Insomnia is more than just frustrating tossing and turning — it can be detrimental to your health. Give up counting sheep — the right diet can offer Food Cures for all types of insomnia and have you resting easy. Experts at the National Institutes of Health estimate that 70 million Americans experience sleep problems, and about half of those can be considered chronic. Insomnia is more than frustrating; it can be downright dangerous. Excess sleepiness increases your risk of injury from accidents. And lack of sleep can weaken the immune system, raising your chances of developing everything from a common cold to type 2 diabetes. Of course, the prospect of long-term disease is no help when you are lying in bed in the dark, wide-awake with no hope of sleep. It is hard not to feel like you are the only person on earth staring at the ceiling. It’s lonely and depressing — and unnecessary. Nutrition, however, holds the answer for many different cases and types of insomnia; certain Food Cures can help.

What Affects Your Ability to Sleep?

Insomnia has a variety of faces. It can mean difficulty falling asleep, frequent waking throughout the night, or waking up too early in the morning. (But just because you don’t sleep much, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have a problem — many people feel that three or four hours of sleep each night are sufficient. They are happy to have more time in their day and do not have insomnia.)

It is not unusual for just about anyone to have difficulty sleeping once in a while, particularly in times of stress, or during travel, or if the room you’re sleeping in is too hot, cold, noisy, or bright. These types of short-term episodes of insomnia are annoying and can certainly affect the way you function the next day, but they are often easily remedied.

Temporary insomnia can also be caused by certain medications, including bronchodilators, pseudoephedrine (found in some over-the-counter cold medicines), antipsychotic medications, beta-blockers, calcium channel blockers, most antidepressants, and many, many others. If your insomnia started within two weeks of taking a new medication, talk with your doctor about whether there is a different medication or dose that might work better for you.

If insomnia occurs at least three nights a week for a month or longer, it is considered chronic. At this point, lack of sleep becomes more than just an annoyance, it can be life altering. Almost all cases of chronic insomnia can be traced to a medical condition, a lifestyle habit, or a psychological preoccupation. Let’s take a closer look at all three.

Medical Conditions

Conventional wisdom used to be that insomnia was age related and you could reasonably expect your sleep habits to change after age 60. That’s no longer considered true. Although people do seem to have more difficulty sleeping as they get older, the underlying reason is usually medical. In other words, insomnia is not an inescapable companion of aging. The confusion arises because many of the medical conditions that affect sleep occur more often in older people — conditions such as depression, gastroesophageal-reflux disease (GERD), sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome, arthritis, kidney or heart disease, osteoporosis, cancer, or Parkinson’s disease. Those disorders can affect neuron function, cause pain, interfere with breathing, or trigger major muscle movements — all of which can lead to sleeplessness. That’s why it is important to have all new cases of insomnia checked out by a doctor to rule out the possibility of a physical disorder.

Lifestyle Factors

Anything that affects the rhythms of your life can affect your sleep pattern: the long work hours leading up to a deadline, a new exercise routine, or a suddenly busy travel schedule as well as sudden idle time. All that upheaval can be reflected in your sleep patterns. For example, when people retire, they may sleep later or feel less stress than they did when they (or their spouses) were still working. These changes help some people sleep better, but others develop insomnia. It may take a while for the new lifestyle to become routine and for new habits to assert themselves.

Until then, sleeplessness can be a real problem. Some lifestyle choices have an immediate effect on sleep. For example, caffeine and nicotine are common causes of insomnia because they can activate the brain. (So if you need yet another good reason to quit smoking, do it to improve your sleep.)

Psychological Factors

Mental preoccupation can have devastating effects on sleep. We all know how worrying over a disastrous work project can wreck a night’s sleep. Imagine if those feelings lasted for months or even years. Depression, anxiety, and other mental-health disorders can trigger insomnia. Research suggests that the reverse is true as well: Left untreated, chronic troubled sleep can cause severe mental distress and contribute to anxiety or depression. If you have experienced long-term insomnia, I encourage you to see a health professional — no matter what you think the cause is, no matter whether it is based in physiology or psychology — because you don’t have to live like that. Help is available.

NEXT: How Food Affects Your Sleep