Nearly everyone jokes about lack of sleep from time to time, like when you searched for your phone only to realize it was in your pocket and blamed it on a restless night. But when you find yourself unable to sleep due to chronic insomnia, it’s no laughing matter.
There’s a long list of health complications linked to long-term lack of sleep. Chronic insomnia can also seriously affect your quality of life, from constantly feeling tired to an increased risk of depression.
The occasional bout of sleeplessness is no cause for alarm. But if you go night after night without getting a full night’s sleep, that’s a wake-up call to reach out to a doctor for help.
Read on for information about when to connect with a doctor for chronic insomnia and why it’s so important to do so.
Most doctors understand that sleep problems are a major health concern.
However, your doctor might not always get the chance to talk with you about sleep patterns during your regular checkup or if you make an appointment for a different concern.
This means it may be up to you to raise the subject of sleep if you’re having issues. If you have chronic insomnia, don’t brush it off as no big deal.
If you’d like, you can try a few things at home to improve your sleep before reaching out to your doctor with your concerns. These include:
- Keep regular sleep hours and meal schedules.
- Limit screen time before bed and reduce light in your sleep space.
- Exercise regularly, at least 5 to 6 hours before bedtime.
- Cut down on caffeine, alcohol, and other drug use.
- Quit smoking, if you smoke.
- Avoid daytime naps.
- Practice relaxation techniques before going to bed, such as meditation or gentle yoga.
- Get up from bed if you can’t sleep, then return to bed when you feel tired again.
If these steps don’t resolve your insomnia, you should discuss your sleep issues with your doctor.
You should talk with your primary care physician if you consistently:
- have trouble falling asleep
- can’t stay asleep
- wake up earlier than you want to
- don’t feel refreshed after sleep
- have excessive sleepiness during the day
To make your doctor’s visit — whether it’s in person or virtual — as productive as possible:
- Write down your sleep-related questions for your doctor.
- Record your sleep and sleep-related activities in a diary and share it with your doctor.
- Detail any self-help techniques you’ve tried and what the results were.
- Make sure you know the name and dosage of any medications you’re taking. If you’re visiting your doctor at their office, you might want to just bring your medications with you.
Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder, but it’s also widely misunderstood.
Everyone has some nights when they can’t fall asleep, or they wake up and spend hours staring at the ceiling.
Insomnia, however, is a more persistent problem that affects:
- Sleep initiation: your ability to fall asleep
- Sleep duration: how long you stay asleep
- Sleep consolidation: matching the amount of time you spend in bed with the amount of sleep you need to reduce awake time in bed
Insomnia can occur even when you have enough opportunities to sleep. It causes negative effects during daytime hours, such as sleepiness or irritability.
Sometimes a significant life event, like the death of a loved one or starting a new job, can cause a temporary bout of insomnia that lasts for a few days or even weeks.
Sickness, jet lag, or environmental factors can also cause this type of sleeplessness, known as acute insomnia. Acute insomnia usually goes away on its own.
Chronic (long-term) insomnia is a serious medical condition. To be considered chronic, insomnia must happen at least 3 nights per week for more than 3 months.
“Common underlying causes of insomnia are obstructive sleep apnea, depressive disorders, pain, nicotine or drug use, and increased alcohol intake,” said Samantha Miller, MD, a spokesperson for Drug Helpline.
Other factors that might cause chronic insomnia include:
- some medications, such as antidepressants, beta blockers, and chemotherapy drugs
- use of caffeine and other stimulant drugs
- lifestyle factors, such as shift work and jet lag
According to the National Sleep Foundation, good sleep quality is defined as:
- spending at least 85 percent of your time in bed asleep
- falling asleep in 30 minutes or less
- waking up no more than once per night
- being awake for 20 minutes or less after initially falling asleep
If your sleep patterns consistently fall short of these standards, you may have chronic insomnia that needs to be addressed.
It’s important to talk with a healthcare professional about chronic insomnia to prevent new or worsening health effects.
- weakened immune system
- increased pain sensitivity
- high blood pressure
- heart disease
- poor concentration
- increased risk of accidents due to fatigue
Your primary care physician may be able to recommend behavioral therapy to help you overcome your chronic insomnia, such as cognitive behavioral therapy.
There also may be medications that can help restore normal sleep patterns.
“I recommend using cognitive behavioral therapy as the first-line treatment for insomnia since it is safer, more lasting, and at least as effective as any sleep medication,” said Pietro L. Ratti, MD, a neurologist and sleep specialist.
Finally, your doctor may refer you to a sleep specialist or a sleep disorder center, where your sleeping patterns can be monitored and analyzed during an overnight stay.
Short-term insomnia is common, but chronic insomnia is a serious health problem. It can lead to or worsen other physical and mental health disorders.
Talk with your doctor about any chronic sleep problems.
Self-help techniques may be effective in resolving chronic insomnia, but your doctor also can recommend treatments for chronic insomnia, including behavioral therapy and medication.