On a typical night I sleep five and a half hours. Maybe six. Yet one cup of coffee gets me through the day and while I occasionally might have the heavy-eyelid feeling when I'm sitting at my desk, I generally make it through the day fine and functioning. Much of the reason that my sleep time is so short is because I wake up at 5 a.m. and rarely fall back to sleep. Is this abnormal? Is it something serious? Sometimes it's hard to know if you have mild insomnia and not just normal sleep troubles.
Insomnia includes difficulty falling asleep as well as difficulty remaining asleep, often resulting in tension headaches, anxiety about sleep, trouble concentrating and extreme daytime fatigue, according to Healthline. Insomnia can be temporary or chronic. Most adults experience some form of insomnia in their lifetime and, according to the Sleep Management Institute, there are a variety of causes including psychological disturbances, medication use, or caffeine consumption. According to Sleep Education, sometimes a disruptive sleep environment, like sleeping next to a snoring partner or one who tosses and turns too much, can result in suboptimal sleep. People who use alcohol to fall asleep often find that their consumption actually leads to less sleep, not more or better sleep.
If you think you may have insomnia, it's important to seek medical help, again according to Healthline. A doctor can help determine the cause of the problem and rule out medical issues, such as kidney disease or hypothyroidism. He or she may ask you to keep a sleep diary and possibly even undergo a supervised sleep study.
These are a few things you can check to know if your sleep difficulties are considered insomnia.
I've learned the hard way that having coffee or Diet Coke after 4 p.m. will wreak havoc on my bedtime. If I have caffeine after that time, it'll be 1 a.m. before I can finally settle in and fall asleep. According to the Sleep Foundation, caffeine has a stimulant effect about 15 minutes after it's consumed. It takes six hours for half of it to disappear from your system, so late afternoon lattes can still keep you awake at 10. If you are having trouble falling asleep, doing a caffeine analysis and mapping out when you ingest the caffeine and what time you are finally asleep might be your first step. It's possible that the caffeine is still in your blood stream and working as a stimulant, preventing sleep. If you eliminate the caffeine and still can't fall asleep, you might be looking at more of a disorder than a routine sleep problem.
I lull myself to sleep most nights by playing solitaire on my phone, despite being told that screen time on any light-emitting device is a sleep problem culprit. According to the Huffington Post, researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital studied the effects of screen time on the ability to fall asleep and the quality of the sleep. They had subjects read an iPad before bed for several nights and then read a printed book before bed for several nights. The difference was huge, with iPad readers taking longer to fall asleep, having shorter REM sleep and even secreting less melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate sleep. The next day the iPad readers were more tired than the subjects who read books, even if both got the same amount of sleep. If you've eliminated the screens from your bedroom and are still having trouble falling asleep, it crosses into possible insomnia.
Sometimes worry about not being able to sleep makes you less likely to get sleep. In a Swedish study, a researcher studied the sleep habits of almost 1800 people, finding that the more they worried about sleeping, the less they were able to sleep. Those that spent less time looking at the clock as they tried to sleep and less daytime hours worrying about their lack of sleep, had better outcomes when they tried to sleep at night. According to Bjørn Bjorvatn, Professor of Family Medicine at the University of Bergen and the leader of the National Expertise Service for Sleep Disorders, therapy can be effective to address the worry cycle and alter that behavior.
An erratic sleep schedule can be responsible for sleep difficulties. Human bodies have circadian rhythms that are controlled by a "master clock," a group of about 20,000 nerve cells, called suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), located in the hypothalamus part of the brain. (Are you taking notes?) According to the National Institute of General Medical Studies, these circadian rhythms "can influence sleep-wake cycles, hormone release, body temperature and other important bodily functions."
Now, here's the important part: This master clock is located just above your optic nerve. If it doesn't receive the right clues, such as various levels of light, it won't emit melatonin, a hormone that helps induce sleepiness. This is why night workers can have trouble with sleep. It's also why people who wake up to light coming into their bedrooms feel more rested upon waking.
Master clocks are set for an approximately 24-hour cycle. When this is thrown off, through travel to different time zones or through a bedtime that varies, it may be harder to fall asleep. All this is to say that, if your bedtime is fairly consistent and you are still having sleep problems, your trouble may be insomnia-related.
Sleep does more than just rest the body, it also produces brain waves that help with memory storage. These brain waves help move memories from the hippocampus to the prefrontal cortex, where long-term memories are stored, according to a 2013 study at the University of California-Berkeley. If you aren't sleeping enough, it becomes more difficult to retain facts.
It's not just the quantity of sleep, but the quality of sleep that can affect how tired you are in the morning. According to Newsmax, if sleep is fragmented, it won't be as restful. While occasional poor nights of sleep may result in waking tired, if you are waking up tired on a regular basis, it's important to professional help to adjust your sleep habits and address any possible medical issues.
Tossing and turning and mulling over the day's events are a normal part of many people's sleep routines. However, if it takes you longer than 30 minutes to fall asleep, this could be a sign of insomnia, according to the Sleep Foundation. If you have addressed the issues above and still find yourself staring at the clock for a long time after you put your head on the pillow, it might be helpful to seek medical assistance.
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