Insomnia: Symptoms, Treatments & Facts

According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, more than 30 percent of adults have suffered from insomnia in some form. But when it comes to symptoms, causes, and treatments, the condition is far from one-size-fits-all. Read on to learn more about what it is, what to do about it, and why you shouldn’t try Vincent van Gogh’s go-to insomnia cure for yourself.

Difficulty drifting off at the start of the night – called insomnia – is probably what many people think of when they hear the word insomnia. But it’s not the only kind. If you find yourself waking up all night and finding it hard to fall back asleep, that’s sleep maintenance insomnia. And if you often wake up much earlier than you need to and can’t fall back to sleep, insomnia may wake you up early in the morning (according to the Sleep Foundation, this is sometimes considered a subset of insomnia due to sleep maintenance rather than its own. category) .

Insomnia can also be labeled by the number of nights it lasts. Chronic insomnia describes sleep problems that occur at least three nights a week for a period of three months or more. Anything less than that is usually considered acute insomnia (also called short-term insomnia or adjustment insomnia).

The ways that insomnia-related lack of sleep can affect you during waking hours are also considered symptoms of insomnia. This can be as simple as feeling sleepy or tired during the day. Or, as the Mayo Clinic explains, you may experience “irritability, depression, or anxiety,” “difficulty paying attention, focusing on tasks, or remembering,” “more mistakes or accidents,” and/or “persistent sleep concerns.”

That afternoon flat white may not help you in the long run.

That afternoon flat white may not help you in the long run. /djgunner/iStock via Getty Images

Drinking caffeinated drinks too late in the day, staring at your phone (or other screen) while trying to fall asleep, or eating a large meal right before bed can cause insomnia. If you usually drink alcohol before going to bed to help you drift off, it can do more harm than good — alcohol can inhibit REM sleep and prevent you from sleeping through the night.

A person’s insomnia may also be related to a pre-existing medical problem. This could be another sleep disorder, such as sleep apnea or restless legs syndrome; a mental disorder such as anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder; or a condition such as asthma, chronic pain, or Parkinson’s disease. Medications used to treat these problems can also contribute to insomnia.

Stress is another common cause of insomnia, whether it’s caused by worrying about fixed areas of life – money, work, relationships, etc. – or by a specific traumatic event, such as losing your job or dying in the middle of the night. family.

In contrast, the usual cause of fatal familial insomnia (FFI) is an abnormal variant in the PRNP (prion protein) gene. Basically, the variant causes prion proteins not to fold properly, which accumulate in the thalamus and begin to shut down nerve cells. One of the main symptoms of this brain damage is insomnia, which often increases over a period of months. FFI is a rare degenerative disease, but it is fatal. According to the NIH’s Genetic and Rare Disease Information Center, patients typically die anywhere from six months to three years after onset.

There is no shortage of drugs on the market that can relieve your insomnia, from prescription sleeping pills like Lunesta and Ambien to over-the-counter supplements like melatonin. But while medication can help you sleep from night to night, it won’t help you identify what’s causing your insomnia and cut it off at the source.

Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) can. As the Mayo Clinic explains, “the cognitive part of CBT-I teaches you to recognize and change beliefs that affect your ability to sleep,” while the behavioral part “helps you develop good sleep habits and avoid behaviors that keep you from sleeping.” sleep well.” Since all of these elements vary from person to person, a sleep therapist will work with you to develop a personalized course of action that may mean improving your “sleep hygiene,” which means making changes to your lifestyle. such as reducing caffeine consumption or increasing exercise; learning meditation and muscle relaxation techniques; or try one of these other common CBT-I methods.

“Sleeping mouse what on your feet?” /LenSoMy/iStock via Getty Images

Some ancient Romans thought that rubbing dormice fat on your feet could help you sleep. Not an attractive prospect, but not as bad as Renaissance mathematician Gerolamo Cardano’s recommendation that insomniacs rub their teeth with dog earwax. Another ancient “cure” for insomnia was a concoction that contained bile from a castrated boar (along with opium, which definitely helped more than the boar’s contribution).

In 1915, a Hungarian soldier named Paul Kern received a gunshot wound to the head while fighting in World War I, after which he reportedly could never sleep again. “Oddly enough, apart from the occasional headache, M. Kern has no ill effects. He hasn’t gone to bed in years and his work isn’t showing the slightest sign of deterioration.” The Adelaide Chronicle wrote in 1930. Kern lived until 1955. Albert Herpin of New Jersey—who died in his 90s in 1947—and Thái Ngọc, a Vietnamese farmer now in his late 70s, have also both made headlines for surviving decades , supposedly without batting an eyelid.

It’s unclear whether those men were real medical anomalies, deliberate exaggerations, or just didn’t know they were, in fact, sleeping every now and then. Oftentimes, people who sleep for too long without sleeping begin “microsleeping” — they fall asleep for seconds at a time without even realizing it. If you try to avoid sleep for as long as possible, it will probably only last a few days before it seriously affects your cognitive and motor skills. The world record for insomnia is just 264 hours — about 11 days — and record-setter Randy Gardner didn’t even begin to hallucinate halfway through.

Franz Kafka, Vincent van Gogh, Abraham Lincoln, Marilyn Monroe, Groucho Marx and Margaret Thatcher are some of the many prominent figures who sometimes struggled to sleep. “Sleepless night. The third in a row,” Kafka wrote in his diary on October 2, 1911. “I fall asleep, but after an hour I wake up, as if I had put my head in the wrong hole.”

Van Gogh mentioned his problems with insomnia in a letter to his brother Theo dated January 9, 1889 – just weeks after he had his ear cut off. “Physically I’m fine,” he wrote. “The most feared thing is insomnia, and the doctor hasn’t talked to me about it, and I haven’t talked to him about it either. But I am fighting it myself.” His self-administered treatment was “a very, very strong dose of camphor in my pillow and mattress.” (Camphor can be poisonous or even fatal if ingested, so don’t follow Van Gogh’s lead here.)

Insomnia: Symptoms, Treatments & Facts

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