Insomnia 101: what is it, what causes it and how to fix it

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When it comes to falling asleep, many of us have problems nodding off, from worrying about work at 2am to eating and drinking too much right before bed. But this differs to insomnia.

SOMNEX | The Sleep Show was the first show dedicated to sleep health, held in London in October. Bringing key sleep industry experts together, one of its speakers was insomnia expert Birgit Buenger, who is shortly publishing a book called Your Night’s Architecture.

“Poor sleep can happen to every single one of us every now and then,” she says. But, “recurrence is key to defining chronic insomnia. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine confirms that if you are facing sleep issues up to three or four times a week and for more than three months, combined with poor daytime coping because of said said sleep issues, it’s chronic insomnia.”

Natalie Lamb is nutritional therapist at Bio-Kult. “It results in impaired daytime functioning, such as poor concentration, mood disturbance, and daytime tiredness,” she says. “Insomnia may last for duration of over a year.

What causes it

A variety of factors can come together to cause insomnia.

“Our busy modern lifestyles often mean that we become out of sync with our natural daily rhythms and our brains are unnaturally stimulated too near to bed time,” says Natalie.

“Hormones, one’s nervous system, sleep hygiene, constant fight or flight responses, anxiety, medication, over-the-counter supplements and more can be concurring factors,” Birgit says. It can also be to do with lifestyle, she goes on, namely “exposure to the 24/7 life – psycho-social stress, unbalanced diet, lack of physical activity, excessive use of electronics, smoking, lack of exercise and so on.”

How to fix it

“Melatonin is our important ‘relaxation’ hormone necessary for us to get a good night’s sleep. It is naturally produced in the body in increasing quantities during the evening as part of our 24-hour circadian rhythm and is stimulated by the darkening light,” says Natalie. So, we should be sleeping with technology in a different room and not using electronic screens a few hours before bed, so our eyes and brain adjust.

Natalie goes on, “I would also recommend reducing the intake of simple sugars and refined carbohydrates to prevent sugar highs prior to bed. Caffeine is a stimulant and not advisable to consume in the evenings if you have trouble sleeping. Eating enough good quality protein and fats with your evening meal will help sustain hunger for longer and further prevent waking in the night due to low blood sugar levels. However, it is advisable not to eat a large meal directly before bed – allow the digestive system time to break down food components before lying down. Alcohol may send you off to sleep quickly and into a deep sleep but will invariably lead to a poor quality interrupted night’s sleep, as you wake easily as the alcohol wears off. Instead, try a cup of camomile tea or valerian tea.”

And food aside, other lifestyle choices will help too. “Address any trauma stemming from sleep issues or generally, to lessen your symptoms of anxiety,” Birgit says. She goes on, “check any medication with your pharmacist as it might need adjusting.” She also adds that you could try meditation as a means to relax, as well as practicing good sleep hygiene.

It’s a lot to take in, and although the above isn’t formal medical advice, know you’re not alone in suffering. While insomnia really can be crippling, small steps could have an impact in making it more manageable.

By Charlotte

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