All About Insomnia: What Causes It, How to Treat It

BY Eric Wolff TIMEFebruary 17, 2022 PRINT

Not sleeping through the night for a couple of days may not do any long-term damage, but suffering from chronic insomnia, where each night is a struggle to sleep, is a dreadful scenario. An estimated 10 percent to 15 percent of people suffer from chronic insomnia with the condition being more common in women and aging adults. Typically stress, mental health conditions, medical conditions, or environmental factors like noise, light exposure, jet lag, or a new sleeping arrangement, are responsible for insomnia.

Types of Insomnia

There are various types of insomnia, broadly defined as acute insomnia and chronic insomnia. 

Chronic insomnia is defined as having trouble sleeping at least three days a week for more than six months. Chronic insomnia is divided into primary chronic insomnia, otherwise known as idiopathic insomnia, where the condition has no known underlying cause, and secondary insomnia, otherwise known as comorbid insomnia, where other underlying conditions like diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, sleep apnea, depression, or anxiety, are directly responsible for insomnia. Onset insomnia refers to difficulty getting to sleep, while sleep-maintenance insomnia refers to difficulty sleeping throughout the night or waking up too early without being able to get back to sleep. 

Light and Dark, Wake and Sleep

Today, many of us make it hard for our bodies to intuitively know when it is time to go to sleep and wake up. At the very basic, a wake-sleep schedule may be all that is needed to counteract insomnia. In one study, people who stuck to a wake-sleep cycle reportedly had fewer sleeping problems.

Following the natural circadian rhythms like our ancestors makes it easier to go to sleep and stay asleep. We are biologically predisposed to use light and darkness as indicators to wake up and go to sleep. Upon waking, light enters the retina, activating the biological clock known as the Suprachiasmatic Nuclei (SCN), to signal the body to wake up. On the contrary, the pineal gland secretes melatonin when it is dark, signaling the body to go to sleep.

For this reason, reduce light intensity and stop using light-emitting devices (like phones) a few hours before bedtime. Additionally, remove all sources of light from the bedroom so it is near pitch black, or use an eye mask when sleeping. Upon waking, enjoy the sunrise, or even artificial light, as it will promote a consistent sleep-wake cycle.

Noise Can Cause Insomnia

Noise can make it hard to fall asleep and stay asleep. The WHO even stated that nocturnal noise is harmful to health and well-being. If noise is responsible for insomnia, block it out by listening to soothing music, using earplugs, or better yet, finding a more peaceful sleeping area. 

Eating, Drinking, and Smoking May Cause Insomnia

Drugs like caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine have been linked to insomnia. Diuretics like caffeinated drinks and alcoholic beverages increase nighttime urination, potentially resulting in sleep-maintenance insomnia. Excessive nighttime urination may require antidiuretic pharmaceutical drugs if natural treatment options aren’t sufficient.

Reduce Or Eliminate Caffeine, Alcohol, and Nicotine

Caffeine can disrupt sleep when consumed up to six hours before bedtime. 

Alcohol makes it easier to get to sleep but results in poor sleep quality and sleep-maintenance insomnia. 

Nicotine consumption makes going to sleep more difficult, decreases deep sleep, and increases daytime sleepiness. Realize that nicotine withdrawal often results in insomnia during the first month after quitting nicotine.

A Warm Bath and a Cool Bedroom Temperature Counteract Insomnia

A warm shower or bath a few hours before bedtime makes going to sleep and staying asleep easier while increasing overall sleep time. Something as simple as improper bedroom temperature can cause insomnia. 

Surprisingly, the optimal bedroom temperature is 65°F, far cooler than most bedrooms. Notably, the rapid loss of body heat was shown to be one of the best ways to counteract onset insomnia.

Exercise, Breathing, Yoga, Relaxation, Valerian Root, and Magnesium For Insomnia 

In a study on 10 individuals, resistance exercise training and stretching were shown to significantly improve insomnia. Breathing exercises like the 4-7-8 breathing technique reduce stress and make it easier to get to sleep. Practitioners of yoga reported an improvement in sleep according to a 2012 survey. Progressive muscle relaxation has been shown to improve sleep in a clinical trial

Certain plant fragrances like lavender have been shown to reduce stress and the anti-anxiety effect of lavender oil is comparable in strength to chlordiazepoxide. 

Valerian root has been shown to improve sleep in people who suffer from poor sleep. 

Magnesium plays a role in healthy metabolism and magnesium supplementation has been shown to improve insomnia. As far as melatonin supplements and chamomile tea are concerned, there isn’t enough evidence to suggest that either helps with insomnia.

Functional Medicine Offers Promise in Treating Insomnia

While insomnia stems from many factors, some functional medical treatments may offer relief. First, follow a wake-sleep cycle that corresponds with the natural circadian rhythm and make the bedroom conducive to sleep by reducing noise, light, and temperature. Additionally, stop consuming caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine, as they have been shown to cause insomnia. Instead, consume Valerian root and supplement magnesium to promote relaxation. Physical exercise, breathing techniques, yoga, and relaxation practices have all been shown to counteract insomnia. Insomnia may seem complex, but the simplest solutions often solve the most complex problems.

Eric Wolff
Eric Wolff writer focused on health, fitness, real estate, alternative fuel, and cryptocurrencies.
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