Insomnia: Truths and Technicalities

May 6, 2016

Almost everyone experiences the occasional sleepless night, and the average adult American carries a bit of sleep debt. These experiences, while exhausting and of concern, are nothing compared to chronic insomnia.

There are three broad types of true insomnia: sleep-onset insomnia, in which sleep takes an inordinate amount of time to arrive; sleep-maintenance insomnia, in which the sleeper wakes repeatedly throughout the night or has difficulty falling back to sleep after a waking; and early-wake insomnia, in which morning sometimes comes for the sleeper before the clock has acknowledged it. Each of these types can be transient (lasting just a few nights), short-term (lasting a couple of weeks), long-term (lasting months or years), or idiopathic (permanent, beginning in early childhood).

It’s hard to imagine the depths of exhaustion and stress experienced by the true insomniac. People who have experienced a sleepless night or two are prone to recommending the same few things. “Have you tried a good sleep routine?” they’ll ask. “Avoid screens in bed,” they’ll say. Journalling and tea are often recommended to those who haven’t slept in weeks. It can make an insomniac want to scream — if he or she had the energy to do so, anyway. Most insomniacs know the expert advice which works for average bad sleepers isn’t as helpful for chronic insomnia.

Many insomniacs discover that nothing works reliably to bring about consistent sleep. What works one night, or even one month, may abruptly stop working. Drugs are habituating and can become less effective over time; herbs are almost laughably useless to someone who can’t fall asleep even after five nights awake. Sleep science is in its infancy; the newest research suggests that sleep variations such as insomnia have so many determinant factors that the true cure may be unique to each sufferer.

If you experience insomnia, the best thing you can do is discuss it with a medical professional as soon as possible. Sleep deprivation is dangerous in myriad ways, from long-term health effects to simple dangers such as driving while sleep-deprived. Medical advice can help you find the best way to treat your insomnia and mitigate the factors causing it. And in the meantime, try not to scream when your friends suggest a hot cup of tea.