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Effects of Insomnia On the Body

Insomnia

Almost everyone experiences insomnia from time to time. Factors such as stress, jet lag, or even diet can affect your ability to get high-quality sleep. In fact, nearly 60 million Americans a year experience insomnia and wake up feeling unrefreshed. Sometimes the problem lasts for a night or two, but in other cases it’s an ongoing issue.

You can have:

  • chronic insomnia, lasts a month or longer
  • acute insomnia, lasts a day or days, or weeks
  • comorbid insomnia, associated with another disorder
  • onset insomnia, difficulty falling asleep
  • maintenance insomnia, inability to stay asleep

Research shows that comorbid insomnia accounts for 85 to 90 percent of chronic insomnia. Insomnia also increases with age. Sometimes insomnia goes away after lifestyle factors such as family or work stress resolve. For more serious cases, addressing the underlying cause can improve your sleep quality.

Treating insomnia is important because this condition can increase your risk for other health concerns. Read on to learn about the effects of insomnia on your body, the causes, and what to do about it.

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Effects and impact

What happens if you have insomnia?

There are serious health risks associated with chronic insomnia. According to the National Institute for Health, insomnia can increase your risk for mental health problems as well as overall health concerns.

1. Increased risk for medical conditions

These include:

2. Increased risk for mental health disorders

These include:

  • depression
  • anxiety
  • confusion and frustration

3. Increased risk for accidents

Insomnia can affect your:

  • performance at work or school
  • sex drive
  • memory
  • judgement

The immediate concern is daytime sleepiness. A lack of energy can cause feelings of anxiety, depression, or irritation. Not only can it affect your performance at work or school, but too little sleep may also increase your risk for car accidents.

4. Shortened life expectancy

Having insomnia can shorten your life expectancy. An analysis of 16 studies that covered over 1 million participants and 112,566 deaths looked at the correlation between sleep duration and mortality. They found that sleeping less increased risk for death by 12 percent, compared to those who slept seven to eight hours per night.

A more recent study looked at the effects of persistent insomnia and mortality over 38 years. They found that those with persistent insomnia had a 97 percent increased risk of death.

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Causes

What causes insomnia?

There is primary insomnia, which has no underlying cause, and secondary insomnia, which is attributable to an underlying cause. Chronic insomnia usually has a cause, such as:

  • stress
  • jet lag
  • poor sleep habits
  • eating too late in the evening
  • not sleeping on a regular schedule, due to work or travel

Medical causes for insomnia include:

  • mental health disorders
  • medications, such as antidepressants or pain medications
  • conditions such as cancer, heart disease, and asthma
  • chronic pain
  • restless leg syndrome
  • obstructive sleep apnea

Read more about what causes insomnia »

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Lifestyle risks

What lifestyle factors increase your risk for insomnia?

There are many reasons you may have trouble sleeping. Many of them are linked to your daily habits, lifestyle, and personal circumstances. These include:

  • an irregular sleep schedule
  • sleeping during the day
  • a job that involves working at night
  • lack of exercise
  • using electronic devices like laptops and cell phones in bed
  • having a sleep environment with too much noise or light
  • a recent death of a loved one
  • a recent job loss
  • various other sources of stress
  • excitement about an upcoming event
  • recent travel between different time zones (jet lag)

Finally, the use of certain substances seems to have a negative effect on sleep. These include:

  • caffeine
  • nicotine
  • alcohol
  • drugs
  • cold medicines
  • diet pills
  • certain types of prescription medications
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Treatment

What changes can you make to manage insomnia?

There are many strategies for treating insomnia. Before you talk to your doctor about medications, try making lifestyle changes. Medications provide effective short-term results, but long-term use is associated with mortality.

Lifestyle changes

Tips

  1. Establish a regular sleep schedule. Sleep and wake up at the same time.
  2. Relax and wind down before going to bed, like by reading a book or meditating.
  3. Create a comfortable sleep environment.
  4. Avoid drinking alcohol or caffeine in the evening hours.
  5. Be finished with any heavy meals or strenuous physical activity at least two hours before your bedtime.
  6. Get out of bed if you are having trouble falling asleep. Do something else until you actually feel sleepy.
  7. Avoid taking naps in the later hours of the afternoon and evening.

Melatonin supplements

This over-the-counter hormone can help regulate sleep by telling your body that it’s time for bed. Higher melatonin levels make you feel sleepier, but too much can disrupt your sleep cycle and cause headaches, nausea, and irritability. Adults can take between 1 and 5 milligrams, an hour before bed. Talk to your doctor about dosage before taking melatonin, especially for children.

You can also try a combination of the therapies listed above. The Mayo Clinic recommends using cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help develop good sleep habits.

Sleep medication

Talk to your doctor about sleep medications if lifestyle changes aren’t working. Your doctor will look for underlying causes and may prescribe sleep medication. They’ll also tell you how long you should take it. It’s not recommended to take sleeping pills on a long-term basis.

Some of the prescription drugs that your doctor may prescribe include:

Read more: Lunesta vs. Ambien »

These prescription pills can cause adverse effects, such as:

  • dizziness
  • diarrhea and nausea
  • drowsiness
  • severe allergic reactions
  • sleep behaviors
  • memory problems
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See a doctor

When should you see a doctor?

Although it’s common to have insomnia from time to time, you should schedule an appointment with your doctor if the lack of sleep is negatively affecting your life. As part of the diagnostic process, your doctor will likely perform a physical exam and ask you about your symptoms. They will also want to know about any medications you take and your overall medical history. This is to see if there’s an underlying cause for your insomnia. If there is, your doctor will treat that condition first.

Click here to learn more about which doctors can diagnose your insomnia.

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