Insomnia is our nation’s silent health crisis. Up to 95 percent of Americans report having an episode of insomnia at some point in their life. About 50 percent of the senior population have chronic insomnia, compared to 25 percent of the general population. For 10 percent of the general population, insomnia is severe. And research shows that half of those diagnosed with insomnia have a cause not related to a psychiatric disorder.
Of course people who have chronic insomnia—a consistent inability to go to sleep or to stay asleep through the night—are at risk for far more than fatigue. Sleep deficiency suppresses the immune system and the libido, decreases productivity, and can lead to other disorders like depression, chronic fatigue, heart disease, and headaches.
Before the use of electric lighting, the average American got nine hours of sleep a night. Now the average is less than seven hours and still going down, as the distractions of twenty-four-hour shopping and entertainment become more widespread. Studies involving mental function show that most adults do best with eight hours; some may need as many as nine or even ten. Children and teens need more sleep than adults do, and older people often find that they simply sleep less than they used to. If you nod off to sleep very quickly—within five minutes of putting your head on the pillow—or if you feel an urge to nap during the day, you probably need more sleep than you’re getting. Poor sleep has been shown to increase the risk of several diseases.
Stress, anxiety, depression, and medications are common causes of insomnia. Stimulants, heavy metals, chronic pain, breathing problems, and other disorders can also keep you from sleeping.
Medications that may cause insomnia include:
• Cardiovascular medications, such as those for the heart and blood pressure
• ADHD medication
• Sinus decongestants
Sleep apnea affects 5 percent of adults, but many will never be diagnosed. During this condition, a person repeatedly stops breathing during the night and wakes up to catch his or her breath. The two consequences of this are a significant drop in the blood’s oxygen and severe sleep deprivation.
Be suspicious of this condition if you snore, have daytime sleepiness, have high blood pressure, or are overweight. This condition is best identified during a sleep study that your doctor can order. The recommendations in this section—especially the dietary ones—may help to treat sleep apnea. Weight loss can be an important component, as can avoiding sleeping on your back. One standard treatment is a CPAP machine, which involves a mask that is kept over your face while you sleep. It keeps constant pressure in the airway so that it does not collapse. Orthodontic devices that pull the lower jaw and the tongue forward are sometimes useful. In rare cases, extremely large tonsils or abnormalities in the throat structure may need to be surgically corrected.
Restless leg syndrome is a disorder characterized by unusual or painful sensations in the legs, accompanied by an irresistible urge to move the legs. It’s often brought on by rest and occurs most often in the evening. It can produce difficulty falling asleep. Many studies have shown that restless leg sufferers have low or low-normal iron levels.
Hormone imbalance can be a root cause of insomnia. This can involve several different hormones. It is common for many women experiencing menopause to develop insomnia. This is generally due to changes in estrogen and progesterone levels. The obvious solution is to follow a hormone-balancing program. Likewise, younger women with premenstrual syndrome can experience the same. In addition, low or high thyroid can interfere with sleep. We also find that elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol interfere with deep REM sleep, which studies confirm. It is not uncommon to find seniors with deficiencies in DHEA, testosterone, and growth hormone, which can be underlying causes as well. The sleep hormone melatonin can work wonders in selected cases, when supplemented correctly.
If you suffer from insomnia, you may find that the gentle treatments in this section help you get a good night’s sleep. If they don’t, talk to your doctor. He or she should review your general health and may also refer you to a sleep-disorder specialist. It is not recommended, under any circumstance, that you take over-the-counter sleeping aids. They do not promote deep, restful sleep, and they may create any of several side effects, including depression, confusion, and dry mouth. Worse, they can be addictive.