The risk of death was elevated for all subtypes of insomnia. The risk of death was highest in individuals with chronic early-awakening insomnia or chronic sleep-maintenance insomnia associated with difficulty getting back to sleep.
According to Science Daily:
"The study involved 2,242 participants ... who completed two to three mailed surveys for years 1989, 1994 and 2000. Participants were considered to have chronic insomnia if they reported insomnia symptoms on at least two of the surveys. A social security death index search in May 2010 determined that 128 participants had died during a follow-up period of up to 19 years."
SLEEP 2010, the 24th annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies LLC, June 7, 2010, San Antonio, Texas
It's easy to take sleep for granted, that is until you don't get enough. A single night of sleeping only four to six hours can impact your ability to think clearly the next day, and when one night stretches into two or three, then weeks or months, you've got a serious problem on your hands.
People with chronic insomnia had a three times greater risk of death from all causes compared to those who sleep normally. The association held true even after all other variables were removed, and applied to all four subtypes of insomnia:
- Chronic early-awakening insomnia (3 times greater death risk)
- Chronic sleep-maintenance insomnia -- people who have difficulty falling back to sleep (3 times greater death risk)
- Chronic sleep-onset insomnia (2.4 times greater death risk)
- Chronic sleep-maintenance insomnia -- people who awaken repeatedly during the night (2.3 times greater death risk)
Chronic Insomnia is Very Common
These findings are relevant to a large number of you reading this, as insomnia is extremely common -- about one-third of adults in all ethnic groups say they get less sleep than they need to function at their best.
Further, insomnia is usually not an isolated incident but rather a persistent condition. About 75 percent of people with insomnia say they have it for at least one year, and half suffer for three years. It can also take on many different forms and may include:
- 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 may also play a role in diabetes, depression and cancer. While it may be tempting to look for a pill to quickly help you sleep, these will not address the top underlying causes of such sleep disorders, which include:
- Stress: All types of negative emotions, including worry, fear, anxiety, etc., can keep you up at night. Stress tops the list when it comes to pinning down the cause of insomnia and other sleep disturbances.
- Overactive adrenals: Increased levels of stress hormones in your body can lead to a hyperaroused state that makes it difficult to sleep.
- Eye problems: People with damage to their optic nerve can have problems sleeping, including difficulty falling asleep, waking up at strange times, sleepiness during the day and insomnia at night.
- Cell phones: Using a cell phone before going to bed could cause insomnia, headaches and confusion, and may also cut your amount of deep sleep, interfering with your body's ability to refresh itself.
Why Does Too Little Sleep Increase Your Risk of Death?
Too little sleep impacts your levels of thyroid and stress hormones, which in turn can affect your memory and immune system, your heart and metabolism, and much more -- including your risk of cancer.
A disrupted circadian rhythm, or sleep/wake cycle, may influence cancer progression through shifts in hormones like melatonin, which your brain makes during sleep.
Having a regular circadian rhythm may be necessary in order for your body to defend against cancer, and sleep/wake rhythms that are disrupted due to stress or other issues may promote cancer growth.
There's also the issue of melatonin, an antioxidant that helps to suppress harmful free radicals in your body and slows the production of estrogen, which can activate cancer. When your circadian rhythm is disrupted, your body may produce less melatonin and therefore may have less ability to fight cancer.
Exposure to light during the night can also reduce melatonin levels, which is why it is important to sleep in total darkness to decrease your risk of cancer. Another link between cancer and the disrupted circadian rhythm lies with a hormone called cortisol, which normally reaches peak levels at dawn then declines throughout the day. Cortisol is one of many hormones that help regulate immune system activity, including the activity of a group of immune cells called natural-killer cells that help your body battle cancer.
Yet another mechanism that may be related to the cancer/sleep association is the hormone insulin. University of Chicago researchers have repeatedly shown that insufficient sleep will result in an increased rate of diabetes due to increased insulin resistance, and insulin has been clearly linked to cancer in previous studies.
Still, cancer is only one risk factor of chronic insomnia. Too little sleep is also known to accelerate aging, raise your blood pressure and increase your risk of heart disease and stroke.
Sleep deprivation can cause changes in your brain activity similar to those experienced by people with psychiatric disorders, and your body does most of its repairs during sleep, so not getting enough of it can impair your immune system, leaving you less able to fight off diseases of ALL kinds.
What to Do if You Have Insomnia
If you have insomnia, you're probably thinking, great, I know it's bad for me, but what can I do about it? It's not like anyone chooses to lie awake half the night, after all. But you needn't feel helpless, because there are some steps you can take that should help you a great deal …
Manage Your Stress and "Unplug" Before Bed
First and foremost, if you're under any kind of stress -- financial, relationship trouble, family-related, etc. -- it's important to your health to have an effective tool to address it. Every one of us confronts stress on a daily basis, so I highly recommend becoming familiar with the Meridian Tapping Technique/Emotional Freedom Technique (MTT/EFT). Most people can learn this gentle tapping technique in several minutes.
MTT / 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.
I also recommend that you "unplug" from the world at least an hour before your bedtime (but preferably two or more) to start to wind down from your day. You may want to spend time journaling, meditating, sipping herbal tea, washing your face, using MTT/EFT or reading a calming or spiritual book.
During this time, turn off your phone, the TV and your e-mail, and put away all work. This will give your mind a chance to unwind so you can go to sleep feeling calm, not hyped up or anxious about tomorrow's deadlines.
Next, make certain you are exercising regularly. A Stanford University Medical School study found that after 16 weeks in a moderate-intensity exercise program, subjects were able to fall asleep about 15 minutes earlier and sleep about 45 minutes longer at night.
Increases in physical activity have also been shown to improve both sleep onset and sleep duration, especially in people who have trouble sleeping. However, don't exercise too close to bedtime or it may keep you awake.
Create a Sleep Sanctuary
Also be sure that your sleeping environment is comfortable and conducive to sleep. This includes keeping the temperature cool, adding in some white noise if you need it and making sure your room is pitch-black.
If there is even the tiniest bit of light in the room it can disrupt your pineal gland's production of melatonin and serotonin. For this reason, I highly recommend adding room-darkening blinds or drapes to your bedroom, or if this is not possible wearing an eye mask to block out any stray light.
These tips are among the most important for a restful night's sleep, but they are only the beginning. For 30 more, please read my comprehensive sleep guide 33 Secret's to a Good Night's Sleep.