What Is Insomnia, And What Are Its Causes?

There’s nothing like a long day at work, only to end the evening in front of the laptop, filtering through endless emails…checking twitter…checking facebook…then carrying the days problems into bed…obsessing about the horrible customer you had to deal with, the nagging co-worker, and tomorrows invoices that are almost guaranteed to go sour…

Lying in bed, eyes wide open…staring at the ceiling…

“Did I forget to mail that receipt today?  Is that proposal due Thursday or was it Friday?  I need to check that in the morning.  Ah crap, I don’t have any clean clothes for tomorrow….Oh wait, yes..I do, I forgot.  I have a clean shirt in the closet.  But I am out of eggs.  Looks like tomorrow’s gonna be McDonalds for breakfast.  OH DANGIT!!!  I forgot to gas up the car.  Unbelievable.  I have to get some sleep so that I can get up in time, I really can’t hit the snooze button tomorrow…”

Next thing you know, the clock says 1:00am.   “I have GOT to fall asleep.”

Then 1:30am…then 2:00am.

“This is unreal.  Looks like I won’t be getting any sleep tonight.”

Has this ever happened to you?

Most Americans have experienced insomnia at least once in their lives.  Some 30%-50% of the general population have experienced or are currently affected by insomnia.

What is insomnia?

You might hear people refer to insomnia as a “sleep disorder,” but in fact, insomnia is not a sleep disorder.  It is not a disease, it’s a symptom.  Insomnia can be simply defined as “difficulty sleeping.”  I was surprised to learn that many people — including doctors — have a hard time grasping this point.  And this is only because insomnia has not really been given the attention it fully deserves in the medical community, and is often referred to as a single disorder for conversational convenience.

There are many different types of insomnia, with a wide spectrum of causes, so it’s hard to make generalizations about the condition.  To help clarify, sleep experts will typically divide insomnia into two categories, “transient” and “chronic.”  Transient insomnia cases typically last a night to a week or two, and chronic cases last weeks, months even years.

To be sure, insomnia is a natural part of the human condition.  However, extreme difficulty in sleeping even for just a few nights can be incredibly dangerous.

In his book, “The Promise Of Sleep,”  William Dement M.D. tells a nightmarish story of severe difficulty sleeping.  In his early days at Stanford University, a couple he knew well left the country to visit and drive through France.  Just two weeks later after they left, he got a postcard from the husband announcing that his wife had been killed in an automobile crash.  Upon returning, he told William that he had fallen asleep at the wheel while driving in the French Alps.  The car went off the road and crashed into a ravine.  He walked away from the accident with only minor bruises, while his wife suffered fatal head injuries.  Jet lag caused the man to fall asleep at the wheel. 

Jet lag caused the man to fall asleep at the wheel.

He made the mistake of renting a car immediately after a 12-hour long red eye flight, and began the tour right away without giving his body enough time to adjust to the 9 hour time shift.  For the first 5 nights he had enormous difficulty falling asleep, and had accumulated a sleep debt large enough that caused him to doze off at the wheel, tragically ending his wife’s life in the accident which could have been prevented had he allowed himself to catch up on some sleep before embarking on a journey through mountainous territory.

So here’s an example of how dangerous one can become on the road with just 5 continuous nights of difficulty sleeping.  When someone has a hard time sleeping, no matter what the cause, stress or jet lag, the condition is no different from deliberate sleep deprivation.  The tendency to sleep will override the brain eventually due to accumulated sleep debt, and you become an extreme risk.

So, if you’re having problems sleeping more than 2 nights, you should be concerned.  If your problems sleeping are chronic, lasting weeks or months, you need to seek the help of a professional.

Causes of Insomnia

The main causes for Transient Insomnia are:

  • Hyperarousal (stress, worry, excitement)
  • Time Zone Changes (jet lag, shift work, major schedule changes)
  • Sleep Environment (traffic noise, loud neighbors, uncomfortable mattress)

Major causes of Persistent Insomnia:

Improving sleep hygiene is one of the easiest ways to battle insomnia and get a good night’s sleep.  Avoiding caffeine before bedtime is an obvious one.  A somewhat counter intuitive way to get better sleep is to exercise at least 3 days a week — ideally in the morning.  And keeping a regular sleep schedule will also help tremendously, so go to bed at the same time every night and get up at the same time — even on weekends or your days off.  It’s somewhat of a sacrifice, but a regular sleep schedule will keep your “internal clock” working the way it’s supposed to work and help keep you operating in peak condition every day.

– Sean