Recognize Insomnia Symptoms and Get Treatment to Have a Good Night's Sleep

March 30, 2023

This article was reviewed by our Baystate Health team to ensure medical accuracy.

Eva M. Mok, MD Eva M. Mok, MD View Profile
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Did you know the average person spends nearly a third of their lives asleep? Or at least the lucky ones do.

According to Dr. Eva Mok, an Adult and Pediatric Sleep Specialist at Baystate Sleep Medicine, despite the need for roughly 7-9 hours of sleep a day, one third of American adults rarely get that much due to insomnia.

Mok says, “Insomnia is an extremely common disorder that leads to poor sleep quality or getting too little sleep. Over time, it can have some pretty profound impacts on your overall health and quality of life.”

Insomnia Symptoms & Impact on Health

Insomnia can make it hard to fall asleep, stay asleep, or cause you to wake up too early and not be able to fall back to sleep. “If you suffer from insomnia,” says Mok, “you may feel tired when you wake up or may not feel well-rested throughout the day. People with insomnia often experience feelings of crankiness or irritability. They may have difficulty concentrating or find that their reaction time is slowed, putting them at greater risk of an accident. Insomnia also increases the risk of developing chronic medical conditions including obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease and can make you more prone to anxiety or depression.”

For these reasons and more, getting at the root of what’s causing your insomnia and treating it is key to restoring good sleep patterns and improving your overall health.

Insomnia and Our Circadian Rhythms

Many of our vital bodily functions are regulated by an internal clock in our bodies referred to as a circadian rhythm. Running on a 24-hour cycle, circadian rhythms influence hormone levels, body temperature, metabolism, as well as when you fall asleep at night and wake in the morning.

While circadian rhythms are controlled by a small area in the middle of the brain, they rely on a lot of cues from the outside world to keep them in sync. Things like sunlight exposure, when you eat, when you engage in social activities, and even natural daily temperature changes (e.g., cooler temperatures at night) help keep your circadian rhythms aligned with the natural world and you falling asleep when it gets dark and waking easily when the sun rises.

Mok says problems begin when we break from our natural routines. “For many of us, the importance of routines and rhythms became very apparent during the pandemic,” she notes. “Not only were daily routines of going to work or doing school runs thrown out the window, but our social connections also suffered. Many of us spent less time exercising and being outside and more time holed up inside, in front of screens, and, honestly, stressing. The number of reported sleep disorders across the globe actually jumped from 39% to 52% during the pandemic and led to the coining of a new term: Coronosomnia.”

Setting or Restoring Good Sleep Routines

While the cause of insomnia can vary, the first steps in treating it always begin with attempting to develop or restore a healthy sleep cycle. This includes:

  • Getting up at the same time each day
  • As best you can, maintaining a consistent work schedule
  • Eating meals at the same time
  • Getting regular exercise
  • Increasing time outdoors
  • Reducing use of alcohol and caffeine
  • Not napping during the day
  • Staying off of electronic devices and avoiding screens several hours before bed
  • voiding exercise close to bedtime
  • Not eating a heavy meal before bedtime

Mok adds that creating consistent bedtime routines that include a bit of wind-down time can also be extremely helpful. And, she adds, “If at all possible, create some separation from your home office space and your bedroom. You want your bedroom to be the place where you sleep and not where you worry about work or watch television on any type of screen.”

If you do find yourself unable to fall asleep or back to sleep in the middle of the night, she suggests getting out of bed. “You don’t want your bed to become a stressful place. So, if you’re tossing and turning, remove yourself from the bedroom and go somewhere else where the lights are dim and do something relaxing like reading a book. When you begin to feel sleepy, crawl back into bed and try again.”

If these measures don’t improve your insomnia, Mok suggests contacting your doctor.

Treatment for Insomnia

Just because you’re not able to treat your insomnia on your own doesn’t mean you’re destined to be tired and frustrated forever. Possible next steps could include cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) which, as Mok explains sounds more complicated than it is. “It’s basically sleep training that helps to identify the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that may be contributing to the symptoms of insomnia. The success rate for CBT-I is as high as 70-90%.”

In some cases, a sleep evaluation may be recommended. Evaluations are particularly good for identifying issues such as sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, and other sleep disorders. Once the cause of the insomnia is identified, it can be properly treated.

Mok emphasizes, “Determining the cause of your insomnia is key to treating to it. There are plenty of over-the-counter supplements and medications out there that promise a good night’s sleep. While the science around many of them is questionable, what’s clear is that none of them will actually resolve your insomnia because they only address the symptoms, not the cause.”

For information on insomnia and other sleep disorders, contact our Sleep Medicine team.

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