Prevalence of Insomnia
Each of us at some point in our life has experienced a night where we just could not seem to fall asleep. Whether from excitement, worry, or too much caffeine, we are all too familiar with the drain the lack of a good night's sleep can have on our energy level and mental and emotional state. Imagine experiencing that on a regular basis. Based on 2007 figures from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, approximately 64 million Americans suffer from insomnia on a regular basis each year and it's 1.4 times more common in women than men.
Definition of Insomnia
By definition, insomnia is a symptom of a sleep disorder characterized by a persistent difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, even though the opportunity presents itself. Lack of sleep typically results in the individual experiencing some form of functional impairment while awake. Insomnia sufferers may also complain of an inability to close their eyes or "rest their mind" for more than a few minutes at a time. There are several types of insomnia:
Transient – lasting from a few days to weeks; it may result from changes in environment (travel, for example), schedule, depression, or stress
Acute – the inability to sleep well at night for a period of three weeks to six months
Chronic – the inability to sleep consistently well at night for more than a year
What Causes Insomnia?
In any of these situations, the insomnia may be the primary concern or it may be a symptom of another disorder of a physiological or mental/emotional nature. Insomnia has a variety of possible causes. Stress in the form of anxiety, depression, or even excitement can be a significant factor. Caffeine intake can also contribute to insomnia. Chronic pain often contributes to disturbed sleep, a circumstance widely reported in patients suffering from fibromyalgia, for example. Insomnia is also associated with various hormonal imbalances, including thyroid hormones, the "stress hormone" cortisol, estrogen, melatonin, or any combination thereof. For example, women going through menopause often have difficulty sleeping due to changes in estrogen levels, which can result in anxiety, hot flashes, and night sweats. Levels of the "sleep hormone" melatonin, secreted by the pineal gland in the brain, tend to decline as we age. Neurological or digestive disorders can also present with sleep disturbances.
Because insomnia is associated with so many different adverse conditions, it is a good idea to first try to identify the underlying cause or contributing factors when seeking treatment.
What Can Be Done to Alleviate Insomnia?
From a natural health perspective these underlying concerns can be addressed in a variety of ways, such as altering diet and lifestyle habits, incorporating various stress management techniques, and utilizing nutritional and botanical supplements to balance deficiencies and support important body functions related to sleep.*
A simple consideration for insomnia of any type is to evaluate daily dietary habits. First, consider caffeine intake over the course of a typical day or week. Between coffee, tea, and soft drinks, the amount of caffeine ingested on a regular basis can be quite surprising and more of a factor than might otherwise be expected.
Second, a high intake of processed foods loaded with artificial preservatives, food colorings, trans-fatty acids, and refined sugars can contribute indirectly to insomnia. In individuals who are sensitive to these substances, they can act as stimulants or even serve to increase inflammation that can contribute to chronic muscle pain, increased fatigue, or depressed mood – all of which can affect sleep quality.
A third factor can be the lack of daily water intake. Although not directly associated with insomnia, adequate hydration is a key component in helping to decrease inflammation, which can manifest as muscle pain and stiffness, headaches, and irritability. Modifying one or more of these daily dietary habits can significantly benefit one's sleeping patterns. Finally, although not a dietary habit, regular daily exercise can have a significant positive impact on the ability to achieve a good night's sleep.
In cases where an individual's insomnia is accompanied by other symptoms, such as pain, mood swings, intolerance to changes in temperature, chronic fatigue, or lack of appetite, it is highly recommended to consult with a health-care practitioner as these symptoms can be signs of a more serious, underlying problem.
Dietary supplementation in the form of various herbs – such as valerian root and chamomile – and supportive nutrients – such as melatonin and magnesium – can be very beneficial in promoting a calm and relaxed state of mind.* Talk to a health-care practitioner with experience in this area to find out what supplements might be right for you.