Not getting enough sleep can make anybody miserable, even if it's only one night, now and again.
For some, though, insomnia is a frequent and ongoing reality. The challenge for them is in finding solutions that work.
After all, treating insomnia doesn't only improve sleep health, it prevents a host of other mental and physical problems that can be very difficult to treat, worsen quality of life, and even cut your life short.
Simply put, the consequences of not sleeping are serious enough that you should not ignore them.
Differentiating insomnia from other kinds of sleep disorders
Before you can be certain your problem is insomnia, you need to make sure you aren't confusing the side effects of insomnia with other kinds of sleep issues that have the same symptoms of insomnia.
Three major sleep problems that may deliver insomnia symptoms include:
Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA): The frequent arousals caused by sleep-disordered breathing can be confused with insomnia because they leave you awake for several periods of the night due to sleep fragmentation.
Circadian rhythm sleep disorders: Sometimes, you might simply have rhythms that are not conducive to an early bedtime, which can cause significant problems with sleep onset. Learn more about sleep phase disorders here.
Poor sleep hygiene: There are dozens of factors that can influence quality and length of sleep that are related to sleeping habits, the environment of your sleeping space, and even daytime habits. Practicing good sleep hygiene can significantly improve problems with sleeplessness.
If you can rule out these concerns, then your next questions should be, "What is insomnia?" and "What kind of insomnia do I have?" The types of insomnia include:
Transient insomnia: This is normal and happens to everybody. A bad night of sleep, every once in a while, is not usually a cause for concern.
Acute insomnia: If you're going through a personal crisis or have an acute health situation, you may experience short-term insomnia as a result. Examples include being in a car accident, having a case of pneumonia, or recovering from surgery. (Read more about what causes insomnia here.) Once the problem is resolved or mitigated, the insomnia should also go away.
Chronic insomnia: This is defined by the National Sleep Foundation as "difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, even when a person has the chance to do so," with disruptions occurring at least 3 times a week and which have been ongoing for at least 3 months.
With the first two forms of insomnia, you should expect a short-lived problem which may not require anything more than time to fix. However, chronic insomnia is the kind of severe insomnia you should be wary of, because it leads to dangerous side effects and consequences that are much more difficult to address.
What are the main side effects of untreated chronic insomnia?
Would you recognize the signs of insomnia? Side effects and symptoms of long-lasting and chronic insomnia include the following:
Lack of motivation and energy
Irritability and anxiety
Lack of focus, attention, or concentration
Physical fatigue or excessive daytime sleepiness
Impaired memory and problems with learning
Unusual behaviors like impulsiveness or aggression
Increased pain sensitivity in coexisting medical conditions, such as arthritis or cancer
What are the consequences of ignoring chronic insomnia?
If you ignore severe, perpetual insomnia, you are going to have to face these complications and consequences, sooner or later:
Reduced job or academic performance
Increased risk for automobile or workplace accidents
Development of psychiatric problems like depression or generalized anxiety disorder
Unhealthy weight gain
Increased risk and severity of long-term diseases or conditions: i.e. high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, stroke
Higher likelihood of abusing drugs or alcohol
What are you waiting for?
If you're avoiding a discussion about ongoing sleeplessness, it may be due to concerns about what it might take to treat your insomnia. Do you recognize yourself among these insomnia sufferers?
Some insomniacs have a negative view of sleep aids or are already
dealing with substance abuse issues.
Other insomniacs may be uncertain of the effectiveness of other
therapies that could help them sleep better.
For many chronic insomniacs, there is a shared sense of having
already done everything possible to no avail.
You don't have to struggle and fall into hopelessness as a result of chronic insomnia. Suffering from any of the kinds of insomnia discussed here is reason enough to seek help.
Treatments today are far more effective and less risky than they were in the past, and sometimes they have the added benefit of providing relief not only for sleep deficit but for some coexisting health problems.
If you encounter long-lasting sleeplessness that occurs at least 3 times a month and you've had this ongoing pattern for more than 3 months, do yourself a favor: talk to your primary care physician or sleep specialist to see what your options are.
You might be surprised at what you haven't already tried and what doctors are now doing, successfully, to help people address chronic insomnia.
And let's face it, the side effects and consequences of insomnia, when left untreated, make for some compelling motivation to get help.
Adequate quality sleep is as key to your overall health and well being as exercise and diet. Don't hesitate to make it a critical priority in your own self care practice.
American Academy of Family Physicians
American Academy of Sleep Medicine
Cleveland Clinic Wellness
National Academies Press: Sleep Disorders and Sleep Deprivation: An Unmet Public Health Problem
National Sleep Foundation
Sleep Medicine Reviews