Is Insomnia Wreaking Havoc Upon Your Health?

By Dr. Joseph Mercola
     with Rachael Droege

Insomnia. It is a term used to describe the more than 82 million Americans who routinely have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep. For those who have ever experienced a few sleepless nights in a row you are likely familiar with the feeling of desperation that sets in as you struggle to function during the following day. If it’s any consolation, you are not alone. Close to 40 percent of the U.S. population over the age of 15 reports they’ve experienced insomnia at least occasionally.

Why do we Sleep?

For an activity that takes up one-third of our lives, little is known about sleep and humans. It’s known, for example, that during the deepest phases of sleep growth hormone is released, energy is restored and the immune system is strengthened, and during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep we have vivid dreams and our brains may be working on consolidating memories.

Further, a study published in Nature last week found that our brain restructures new memories during sleep, helping us to solve problems and become more insightful. However, how and why this occurs, and how we’ve evolved to thrive off of a certain amount of sleep each night is largely unknown.

While it was once thought that our brains were inactive or dormant during sleep, it’s now known that our brains are very active during sleep and require the activity of special nerve cells just to maintain a state of sleep. But the effects of sleep on our physical and mental health are only just beginning to be understood.

Insomnia’s Effects on Health and the Economy

What is known about sleep is that when we don’t get enough of it there are serious consequences to our physical and mental health, economy and society as a whole. Insomnia, which can occur intermittently or for several days or months at a time, is classified as:

  • Difficulty falling asleep

  • Waking frequently during the night

  • Waking too early in the morning and not being able to get back to sleep

  • Waking feeling unrefreshed

Insomnia will affect your hormone levels and accelerate aging and has been named as the culprit in a variety of diseases including:

But one of the most obvious and immediate effects of insomnia is the increased risk of accidents. As reported in Business Week, "Studies show that someone who has been awake for 24 hours has the same mental acuity as a person with a blood alcohol level of 0.1, which is above the legal limit for driving in most states."

This is a serious enough problem for the typical person driving to work, as an average of 70,000 auto accidents are caused by sleepy drivers each year, but when you consider someone who is a health care worker, pilot, or law enforcement worker, the effects can be deadly. Some 39 percent of health-care workers report that they’ve had a "near miss or accident" at work due to fatigue in the last year.

Further, sleep disorders cost the nation about $45 billion every year in lost productivity, health care and motor vehicle accidents.

New Sleeping Pills on the Horizon

Not surprisingly, the drug companies are scrambling to create new and improved sleeping pills that they can peddle to all of these sleepless people. It’s estimated that the market for such drugs will reach $5 billion by 2010, more than double its current value. Sleeping pills have caused some serious side effects in the past, such as addiction, depression, and suicide, but the newer drugs, some due out in 2004, promise to be non-addictive, safer and more effective than previous versions.

Here are just a few of the new sleep aid drugs that are being developed (data from Business Week):

  • Indiplon: Manufacturer Neurocrine Biosciences Inc is seeking approval so the drug can be used nightly for months at a time (all current sleep drugs are approved for short-term use only)

  • Estorra: The manufacturer, Sepracor, is seeking approval to label the drug as safe for use longer than a week

  • PD-200,390: Manufacturer Pfizer claims the drug can lengthen the deepest phases of sleep

Other drug companies are seeking to widen their market of current products, such as Cephalon’s narcolepsy drug Provigil. The manufacturer just received approval last month to market the drug to treat a range of sleep disorders, including sleepiness suffered by night-shift workers, as opposed to only narcolepsy.

The drug companies will surely play their part in popularizing the new drugs by playing up the risks of insomnia along with the benefits of their drugs, but what really needs to be addressed is whether a drug-induced sleep can really provide the same, complex benefits that natural sleep provides--and I would suspect not.

Methods to Help You Sleep

If you’re suffering from insomnia it may be tempting to look to a pill for an immediate solution, but in the long-term the effects of these drugs are likely to be worse than those of the insomnia. Here are my top 10 suggestions from my Guide to a Good Night’s Sleep for those of you who are having sleep problems, and you can check out the guide for 19 more.

  • My favorite for insomnia is Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT). Most people can learn this gentle tapping technique in several minutes.

  • EFT can help balance your body’s bioenergy system and resolve some of the emotional stresses that are contributing to the insomnia at a very deep level. The results are typically long lasting and the improvement is remarkably rapid.

  • Avoid before-bed snacks, particularly grains and sugars. This will raise blood sugar and inhibit sleep. Later, when blood sugar drops too low (hypoglycemia), you might wake up and not be able to fall back asleep.

  • Sleep in complete darkness or as close as possible. When light hits the eyes, it disrupts the circadian rhythm of the pineal gland and production of melatonin and seratonin. There also should be as little light in the bathroom as possible if you get up in the middle of the night.

  • No TV right before bed. Even better, get the TV out of the bedroom or even out of the house, completely. It is too stimulating to the brain and it will take longer to fall asleep. Also disruptive of pineal gland function for the same reason as above.

  • Wear socks to bed. Due to the fact that they have the poorest circulation, the feet often feel cold before the rest of the body. A study has shown that this reduces night wakings.

  • Read something spiritual or religious. This will help to relax. Don't read anything stimulating, such as a mystery or suspense novel, as this may have the opposite effect. In addition, if you are really enjoying a suspenseful book, you might wind up unintentionally reading for hours instead of going to sleep.

  • Avoid using loud alarm clocks. It is very stressful on the body to be woken suddenly. If you are regularly getting enough sleep, they should be unnecessary. I gave up my alarm clock five years ago and use a dawn simulator, which switches from an alarm to a dimmer switch that gradually turns the light on to full intensity over 45 minutes. I just love it as it is so gentle, and if I need more sleep I get it without being startled or disrupting my adrenals. Almost like a real dawn.

  • Journaling. If you often lay in bed with your mind racing, it might be helpful keep a journal and write down your thoughts before bed. Personally, I have been doing this for 15 years but prefer to do it in the morning when my brain is functioning at its peak and my coritsol levels are high (CLICK HERE)

  • Melatonin and its precursors. If behavioral changes do not work, it may be possible to improve sleep by supplementing with the hormone melatonin. However, I would exercise extreme caution in using it, and only as a last resort, as it is a powerful hormone. Ideally, it is best to increase levels naturally with exposure to bright sunlight in the daytime (along with full spectrum fluorescent bulbs in the winter) and absolute complete darkness at night. One should get blackout drapes so no light is coming in from the outside. One can also use one of melatonin's precursors, L-tryptophan or 5-hydroxytryptophan (5-HTP). L-tryptophan is the safest and my preference, but must be obtained by prescription only. However, don't be afraid or intimidated by its prescription status. It is just a simple amino acid.

  • Get to bed as early as possible. Our systems, particularly the adrenals, do a majority of their recharging or recovering during the hours of 11 p.m. and 1 a.m. In addition, your gallbladder dumps toxins during this same period. If you are awake, the toxins back up into the liver, which then secondarily backs up into your entire system and causes further disruption of your health. Prior to the widespread use of electricity, people would go to bed shortly after sundown, as most animals do, and which nature intended for humans as well.

For 19 more tips, visit the "Guide to a Good Night's Sleep"

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