By Stefanie Teng, M.D.
We’ve all tossed and turned for hours at night, trying everything to make sleep come. It’s frustrating, your brain won’t stop going, you’re fully expecting to be exhausted the next day, and worrying about not sleeping just seems to make it more difficult to fall asleep. Believe it or not, as maddening as this is, a few sleepless nights here and there are common. But if you have difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep for a month or longer, you may have insomnia.
Chronic Insomnia Is a Serious Problem
Insomnia is a sleep disorder. While many only think of insomnia as preventing people from falling asleep, insomnia can also be responsible for causing people to wake up after they’ve fallen asleep, which means the disorder can make it difficult for people to stay asleep as well. It can also cause you to wake up too early and not be able to get enough sleep. Most people experience acute insomnia – insomnia that is short-term and typically lasts for days or weeks – at least once in their lives. This type of insomnia is often the result of stress or a traumatic event such as a death in the family or loss of a job. Chronic insomnia, however, can last for a month or more and can really start to do damage to your sleep cycle and ability to function in your day-to-day life.
Insomnia Has Multiple Causes
When dealing with insomnia, it’s important to rule out medical issues that could be driving it. Restless leg syndrome and sleep apnea are two common problems that can lead to insomnia. Others include diabetes, chronic pain, heart disease, asthma, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), overactive thyroid, Parkinson's disease, and Alzheimer's disease. Some medications also can cause sleep problems.
Symptoms that may signal an insomnia problem include:
• Trouble falling asleep
• Waking up too early
• Waking up during the night
• Being tired or sleepy during the day
• Not feeling rested after you wake up
• Trouble paying attention, focusing or remembering
• Depression, anxiety or irritability
• Errors or accidents happening more frequently during tasks
• Constantly worrying about not being able to sleep
When You Should See a Doctor
If lack of sleep is preventing you from living a normal life, don’t suffer unnecessarily – talk to your doctor. There might be an underlying physiological cause for your sleeplessness, and the only way that can be diagnosed is with tests your doctor might order. Your physician might also ask questions about lifestyle choices or sleep habits that might be disrupting your sleep. Stress, eating too much late in the evening, frequent travel, shift work, and too much stimulation from digital devices and caffeine can contribute to wakefulness.
Changing your sleep habits and addressing any issues that may be associated with insomnia, such as stress, medical conditions, or medications, can restore restful sleep for many people. If these don't do the trick, cognitive behavioral therapy, medications, or both, may be recommended.
Dr. Teng is a board-certified Internal Medicine physician who cares for patients at Kelsey-Seybold’s Katy Clinic. Her clinical interests include diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, and high cholesterol.