So, what’s the difference between insomnia and sleep deprivation?
Insomnia is when a person struggles to fall, or stay asleep, for as long as their body requires – the body’s internal inability to get an adequate length or quality of sleep. It is thought that a third of us may suffer from some form of insomnia on a regular basis.
Sleep deprivation, however, refers to a lack of sleep due to external restrictions, such as lack of opportunity to sleep.
For example, Jack and Jill both fell asleep in class today. Jack is tired because he was playing computer games until 3am, only allowing himself 5 hours’ sleep before school. Jill however went to bed at 10pm, but was unable to fall asleep until 3am. So Jack suffers from acute sleep deprivation (since he consciously disallowed himself adequate opportunity to sleep), whereas Jill suffers from insomnia (since her body wouldn’t let her fall sleep, despite her opportunity to). But both are displaying the same symptoms of acute sleep-deprivation, which include:
- Daytime sleepiness
- Poor attention-span
- Dark bags under the eyes
If this continues for several months, the long-term symptoms of chronic sleep-deprivation may include:
- Weight loss or gain
- Memory loss
- Increased blood pressure
- Increased stress hormone (Cortisol) levels
- Increased risk of type 2 diabetes development
Sleep deprivation can have a significant impact on daytime alertness
So just how much sleep should we be getting?
Well, since everyone is different, there’s no hard-and-fast rule as to how many hours of sleep we need per night. For one person, insomnia might mean only being able to sleep for 5 hours a night, for another, this might be a perfectly adequate amount – we’re all different. Most healthy adults, however, need 7.5-9 hours of sleep per night, to function properly the next day.
Regularly getting an inadequate amount of sleep for your individual needs can severely affect a person’s quality of life, mood, and energy levels. These adverse consequences may become noticeable after several days, weeks, to months of insomnia – and it’s at this point that most people seek help.
This is the term used by doctors for a person’s sleeping habits, to ensure the maintenance of a regular sleep-wake pattern. This includes anything that may affect your sleep, including:
- Napping habits – quite simply, the more a person sleeps during the day, the more they’ll struggle to sleep at night!
- Food – eating large meals just before bedtime can affect sleep. Plus, some foods such as chocolate also contain caffeine!
- Drinks – particularly those containing the stimulant ‘caffeine’: coffee, energy drinks, colas, teas. Alcohol is also very disruptive to sleep.
- Smoking – nicotine is also a stimulant, so smoking before bed can be detrimental to sleep
- Exercise – regular exercise has been shown to benefit sleep.
- Stress – high stress levels lead to the highcortisol levels, otherwise known as the ‘stress hormone’. This can also interfere with the sleep-wake cycle.
- Natural light exposure – without sufficient daily exposure to natural light, the body clock cannot run in the normal 24-hour cycle it should do.
- Sleeping environment – factors such as noise, light, and temperature may play a role in your quality of sleep.
Good sleep hygiene promotes healthy sleep, which in turn leads to good daytime alertness.
Reassessing your sleeping environment is a key consideration, when trying to improve sleep hygiene.
So, how do you treat insomnia and sleep deprivation?
For sleep deprivation, there’s often a clear environmental cause for the lack of sleep opportunity. For example, new parents will often suffer from sleep deprivation for the first few weeks to months of having a new baby, not necessarily insomnia. Therefore, the best solution for sleep deprivation is the consideration and adjustment of a person’s daily routine, to allow the opportunity for sufficient sleep.
New parents are usually very familiar with the misery of sleep deprivation!
Unfortunately, with regard to chronic insomnia, however, there is no single quick-fix. Although ‘sleeping pills’ sound like the simple solution, they often just provide short-term relief to what’s usually a long-term issue.
The first thing to address, is your sleep hygiene. Are any obvious bad sleeping-habits interfering with your ability to get a good night’s sleep? It’s worth re-assessing your food and drink intake (particularly caffeine!) and exercise throughout the day, as well as checking your sleep environment: is there a way you can make your bedroom darker, or more quiet?
Another thing to consider, is your use of mobile-phone or computers late at night. These bright screens can really disrupt the body’s wake-sleep cycle.
Once you’ve exhausted all habit and lifestyle improvements, your GP or one of our Private Doctors may suggest a form of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), including techniques such as sleep restriction, stimulus control, cognitive therapy and relaxation therapy. For some people, insomnia can lead to a vicious cycle of anxiety and depression, causing further insomnia, further anxiety, further depression. CBT is a great way of addressing such psychological cycles, and finding a a better way to manage such situations.
However, some insomniacs continue to suffer despite all of the above interventions. This is when a GP may begin to consider other medical/ pharmacological interventions, such as sleeping tablets. Medications such as Benzodiazipines and Zopiclone are known as “sleep inducers”, and can be prescribed in severe cases of insomnia for up to four weeks’ use. However, such medications become less effective over time, since patients may become psychologically dependent on them.
Medications such as Sleeping Tablets and Melatonin are sometimes offered by GPs to treat insomnia, when all alternatives such as Sleep Hygiene improvements and CBT have not been successful.
An alternative medication is also the hormone Melatonin, which is integral in the brain’s natural daylight-sensing pathways associated with the wake-sleep cycle. This hormone’s level fluctuates throughout the day, peaking overnight. Thus, for people with a disrupted sleep cycle, taking a dose of Melatonin before bed can help to re-align the natural body-clock to a normal sleep-wake cycle.
In conclusion – there are plenty of potential treatments for insomnia, that you may have never considered until now. So don’t suffer in silence – come in and speak to a GP today, to discuss the ways in which you can improve your sleep deprivation or insomnia, to improve your overall wellbeing!