Insomnia (in-SOM-nee-a) is a disorder in which people have trouble sleeping or getting enough rest.
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Why Can't I Sleep?
Humans, like all earth's creatures, have cycles of activity and rest, which perhaps evolved partly as a response to the cycles of night and day. Many of the body's hormones * and processes are related closely to such daily cycles. Sleep provides the opportunity to rest, to restore certain essential neurotransmitters, * and even to avoid certain predators. Sleep, in short, is necessary to health and even to life.
Millions of Americans have insomnia. They may have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep through the night, or they may wake up too early or sleep so restlessly that the body and mind are not refreshed. Insomnia is not defined by how long it takes to fall asleep or by how many hours a person sleeps, because these characteristics vary greatly from person to person. Babies may sleep 16 to 20 hours a day, and school-age children need between 8 and 10 hours a night. Some adults need 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night, whereas others function perfectly well with just 3 to 4 hours. Instead, people are diagnosed with insomnia when sleep problems begin to interfere with daily living—when they can no longer function normally during the day because of being tired or cranky, having no energy, and being unable to concentrate.
Everyone has trouble sleeping sometimes. Young people who are excited about a holiday or stressed about an exam might have trouble falling asleep. Adults who are worried about a sick relative or stressed at work might wake up in the middle of the night and not be able to fall back asleep. These are examples of short-term, or transient, insomnia, which are sleep problems that last for one night or even for a few weeks and then disappear. In other cases, episodes of short-term insomnia come and go; this is considered intermittent insomnia. But half of all people with insomnia have chronic * insomnia, which is a sleep problem that occurs on most nights for a month or longer.
* hormones are chemicals that are produced by different glands in the body, Hormones are like the body's ambassadors: they are created in one place but are sent through the body to have specific regulatory effects in different places.
* neurotransmifters (NOOR-o-TRANS-mit-urz) are brain chemicals that let brain cells communicate with each other and therefore allow the brain to function normally.
* chronic (KRON-ik) means continuing for a long period of time.
* psychological (sy-ko-LOJ-i-kal) refers to mental processes, including thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
Insomnia affects people of all ages, but it is most common in older people, especially women. When people travel, start a new job, or move to a new home or school, all of which are changes in routine, they can have trouble sleeping. Physical conditions such as pregnancy, arthritis, the need to urinate frequently, and leg cramps also seem to cause sleep problems. But the most common cause of insomnia is psychological * ; emotions such as anger, anxiety, depression * , and stress keep many people from sleeping well.
What to Do about Insomnia
If insomnia is transient, it should go away when the stress that triggered it eases, such as when that worrisome exam is over. For underlying psychological or physical issues, seeing a doctor can help improve sleep. Dealing with insomnia, however, is often a matter of lifestyle changes. Things that may contribute to insomnia include:
- Reading, eating, or watching television in bed (use a bed only for sleeping)
- Taking afternoon naps
- Drinking alcohol
- Drinking coffee, tea, cocoa, colas, or other drinks that contain caffeine late in the day
- Taking sleeping pills not prescribed by a doctor
* depression (de-PRESH-un) is a mental state characterized by feelings of sadness, despair, and discouragement.
Things that may contribute to a better night's sleep include:
- Keeping to a sleep schedule, which means going to sleep and getting up at the same time every day
- I Exercising during the day (but not after dinner)
- Taking a warm bath before bedtime
- Drinking warm milk before bedtime