What Is Insomnia, Exactly? And How Can We Get Better Sleep?

by | Jun 12, 2023 | Physical Health

If sleep is a constant struggle for you (here’s looking at you, doom scrollers), welcome to the club. According to the sleep tracking app Sleep Cycle, South Africans get fewer hours in the hay than any other nation in the world. It also seems that the older you get, the worse your insomnia becomes. Per a 2012 study, people aged 65 and older have higher rates of insomnia.

Meet The Expert: Dr Alison Bentley is a Restonic Sleep Expert

So… What is insomnia?

“It’s easiest to describe insomnia as a reduced quantity of sleep,” Dr Bentley says. “But, to be an insomniac, the reduction in hours of sleep has to cause some kind of problem with daytime function. This could range from poor concentration to memory problems, trouble focusing on tasks and fatigue.”

She adds that apart from a drop in daytime function, insomnia can have many long-term effects on health, including cardiac issues and metabolic disorders, such as obesity and diabetes. This makes it important to address insomnia as soon as possible.

What are the symptoms of insomnia?

There are three main symptoms of insomnia, according to Dr Bentley.

  •  Trouble falling asleep
  • Waking in the middle of the night and battling to go back to sleep
  • Waking too early in the morning.

Most people have more than one of these symptoms and a particular symptom does not necessarily link to a specific cause.

There are different types of insomnia

Insomnia is a class of disorders as there are multiple causes. Dr Bentley says the condition can also either be acute or chronic.

Acute insomnia

“Acute insomnia occurs when sleep is disrupted due to a specific stressor and in most people only lasts for as long as the stress does, after which it resolves and sleep becomes normal again,” she says.

“The stress is often psychological. For example, someone might struggle with after the death of a loved one or during a period of intense work stress. It can, however, also be caused by a physical trigger, such as the development of a painful disorder, such as arthritis. Only a quarter of people with acute insomnia go on to suffer with chronic insomnia.”

Chronic insomnia

Got chronic insomnia? That’ll be the case if you’ve got sleep problems, from the above symptoms, lasting at least three days per week for at least three months. “At this point, it’s usually not stress causing the sleeplessness, but changes in the way we think of sleep (cognitive issues), as well as some bad habits (behavioural issues) that we adopt to try to get more sleep,” says Dr Bentley. “These mean we worry more about our sleep and spend longer in bed trying to get more sleep and both of these factors make our sleep problems worse.”

Other types of insomnia

If you’re dealing with depression, anxiety, chronic pain or obstructive sleep apnoea, you might also have insomnia. Various medications used to treat other medical disorders can also interfere with sleep, for example, medications that lower cholesterol and antiretrovirals for treating HIV infection, says Dr Bentley.

Is your mattress the culprit?

Sometimes, your mattress might be to blame. If you have a mattress that leaves you waking up with aches and pains, you might need to replace it. “Over time, the comfort layers in your mattress break down, which can cause pressure points when you sink onto the firmer support core,” says Dale Harley, Executive in Restonic Marketing.

Dr Bentley adds that other signs that your mattress is affecting your sleep can include finding it difficult to get comfortable causing a longer sleep onset (time to fall asleep).

“If you no longer wake up feeling refreshed, your mattress may be at the end of its life,” Harley says. “It’s worth exploring whether this is the case.”

How do you know if you have insomnia?

Sure, you’re not clocking eight solid hours every night, but does that mean you’re an insomniac? Not necessarily, says Dr Bentley. “The number of hours usually quoted as constituting ‘normal sleep’ is seven to eight hours a night. However, this is not quite true,” says Dr Bentley. “Yes, seven to eight hours is the average amount of sleep for a population. But there are many people who need more than that and some who need less.”

Treatments for insomnia

Treatment for insomnia can include CBT, or cognitive behavioural therapy, as well as medication. You’d also need to cultivate a sleep routine that includes cues your body would learn from. When you expose yourself to a certain scent, for example, that might signal sleep time for your brain, enabling you to nod off. Per the Sleep Foundation, healthy sleep would also involve limiting stimuli around bedtime. Yip, that includes your cellphone and TV.

Bottom line: if you wake up feeling tired, you likely need more sleep. Think you’re dealing with insomnia? Chat with your doctor first. “There are a number of conditions that cause insomnia and treatment does not always need to involve sleeping tablets,” says Dr Bentley. “But ignoring the problem does not result in improvement over time. Once insomnia has become chronic, it will generally continue unless specific action is taken.”

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