Not getting enough sleep or not being able to fall asleep or stay asleep long enough to get the benefits of sleep is called insomnia. Insomnia is the most common sleeping disorder in the U.S. The most serious form of insomnia is known as fatal familial insomnia (FFI). The ‘familial’ in the phrase indicates that this is a genetic disease. FFI is rare: 400 cases worldwide are known. In FFI, a person in their 50s begins to lose the ability to sleep. After losing the ability to nap, their hours of sleep decrease, and soon they don’t sleep at all, or only approach a state of drowsiness that never results in deep sleep. Their prognosis is death within a year. Studies of this form of sleeping disorder may one day lead us to an understanding of the need for sleep, but right now, we understand very little of the need for sleep, although we all know we need it.
Insomnia is the most common sleeping disorder among Americans. Most people sleep from six to nine hours a night – about a third of our lives. That gives us from 15 to 17 hours of wakefulness. Insomnia can mean having difficulty falling asleep, but finally being able to do so, or it can mean something as severe as FFI. Most people experience some insomnia in their lives. Light insomnia that does not persist night after night usually results in our feeling dull and foggy the next day. With non-persistent insomnia, we’re sure to fall asleep the next night and even sleep deeply, for a full 7 to 9 hours. Such insomnia is less a sleeping disorder than it is a part of what we can normally expect in our lives.
Persistent insomnia occurs night after night. If we didn’t have to be at work or school, or be awake at a certain time to care for our families the next day, this sleeping disorder would have little impact on our lives. We could just sleep in. Because most of us do have to wake up at a certain time, we end up sleeping for shorter periods of time. Day after day we feel tired and groggy, perhaps in a bad mood, dull and inattentive. This can have serious consequences for our family and work life. If we drive or operate heavy equipment, the consequences can be dire. When insomnia becomes persistent, it’s time to see your doctor.
The cause of persistent insomnia can be either psychophysical or only physical. Psycho-physical insomnia, also called true or classical insomnia, is what most insomniacs experience. In the U.S., about 30 million people have this condition. It is characterized by an inability to blur the focus of our consciousness on thoughts, images, emotions or sensations long enough to allow the brain to slip into sleeping unconsciousness. Meditation and acupuncture may help. Some have found they can pray themselves to sleep, but short of sleeping pills, reading a book, avoiding exciting television shows, and sleeping in a darkened, quiet space, little else can be done. For most, however, these techniques seem to work.
The purely physical cause of insomnia, sleep apnea, is also a more dangerous sleep disorder. People with sleep apnea have a greater risk of stroke and heart attack. With sleep apnea, a person doesn’t have trouble falling asleep, but staying asleep. Their sleep is interrupted when the throat and esophagus muscles relax to such a degree that the relaxed muscles close the air passage. The brain, recognizing the closure, wakes the person. This can happen more than a 100 times in a single night. Sleep apnea is the most common of sleeping disorders. Treatment involves inserting a device into the person’s throat to keep the air passage open. It works, although it may take some time to get used to it.
Unless you have FFI, you’ve got a pretty good chance of overcoming your sleeping disorder. Be active enough to be tired in the evening, eat what your body needs, and go to sleep at a regular time. See your doctor if your insomnia persists. Now, have a good night, have a good sleep.