This article will address what you need to know to properly understand insomnia– including common myths that often prevent people from healing the root cause of their sleep issues.
What is Insomnia?
Insomnia is a sleep disorder that plagues many, characterized by difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. Some people also use the word insomnia to describe not waking rested, regardless of the number of hours asleep. Up to 30% of the U.S. population is experiencing insomnia, either occasionally or chronically.
If you experience difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking too early, you are experiencing insomnia.
Beyond self-diagnosis, a sleep study can provide further insight into your sleep patterns. A sleep study, also called polysomnogram (PSG), evaluates sleep patterns and diagnoses sleep disorders.
A PSG is done in a sleep center under trained specialists’ supervision. By analyzing various parameters, sleep technologists and sleep medicine specialists can diagnose sleep disorders like sleep apnea, insomnia, restless legs syndrome, narcolepsy, and more.
That said, this process may not be appropriate for everyone.
Another way to get a snapshot of what is happening with your sleep is through wearing a sleep tracking device. You wear the device to bed and can later review the assessment of your sleep patterns. Most importantly, you can record your total sleep duration, as well as the duration of your REM sleep and deep sleep. Ideally, regardless of age, you should be sleeping about 8 hours, including 2 hours of REM and 2 hours of deep sleep.
Types of Insomnia
There are many types of insomnia. Medicine tends to use specific names for symptoms or health challenges. Even though the label doesn’t always guide us to the cure, those terms can be helpful for researching solutions, so I’ll provide a list of some of the most common insomnia-related diagnoses.
(I’ve seen all of the following conditions resolve when the root cause is addressed, so there is hope for you if you have insomnia).
Types of Insomnia:
- Sleep Advance Insomnia – You fall asleep at night earlier than is ideal.
- Sleep Delay Insomnia – You fall asleep later than is ideal.
- Sleep Onset Insomnia – You have difficulty falling asleep for the night.
- Sleep Maintenance Insomnia – You wake during the night and struggle to fall back asleep.
- Terminal Insomnia – Waking too early and not being able to go back to sleep.
- Chronic Pain Insomnia – Pain (such as backaches) disrupts your sleep.
- Headache-Related Insomnia – Headaches wake you from sleep.
Common Insomnia Myths Debunked
Insomnia is one of the most important problems you can solve for overall health and longevity. Why? Because the body and brain heal through restful sleep.
Unfortunately, there are many myths related to insomnia. Let’s address these first before exploring the best possible solutions.
Myth #1: You can’t fall asleep or stay asleep because you are overthinking
This myth misunderstands the very mechanism of sleep itself.
Everyone who sleeps is thinking. The sound sleeper is thinking but they are simply thinking while they sleep. REM sleep (where dreams happen) makes for a very active brain, with vivid imagery…and thoughts!
So, if everyone thinks while sleeping, why is it that some people seem to be “kept up” due to worrisome thoughts?
I believe that the experience of “thoughts keeping you up” is a brain chemistry problem, rather than a thinking problem. This means that regardless of having a stressful day, when the brain has what it needs to fall asleep and stay asleep, you will sleep.
This also means that you can’t “stop thinking” in order to sleep. If you routinely have the experience of racing thoughts that seem to disrupt your sleep, this is likely a sign of a sleep disorder that needs healing.
Ensuring your brain has the right chemicals to perform the job of sleep is usually much more effective than focusing on how to get rid of the thoughts themselves.
In fact, sleeping deeply is one of the ways that we work on resolving our inner conflicts and improving our mood. So, even while we sleep our brain is actively thinking!
Myth #2: If you take a nap during the day, you’ll ruin your sleep at night
This myth is encouraging you to not listen to your body. If it is telling you it needs to sleep then it’s wise to listen. There are three main reasons a desire to sleep during the day might be happening…
One, you are catching up on sleep you missed due to a life circumstance…for example, taking care of a baby at night. For a healthy sleeper, it is normal to want to nap during the day after a situation like this, and if time allows, take a nap!
Two, your sleep isn’t as restorative as it needs to be, so your body is asking for more sleep during the day. In this case, your nap isn’t the problem, but the lack of restorative sleep at night is. As you move toward making your sleep more restorative, your need for daytime naps will reduce.
Three, in the process of your sleep becoming more restorative, your body may ask for additional sleep in order to make repairs.
For a finite period of time, people who are coming back from years of insomnia can have an increased desire to nap during the day. In this case it’s a sign of healing. Listen to your body!
Myth #3: You shouldn’t take sleep meds
There can be a stigma that comes with taking medication to solve your sleep issue. There can be shame or a feeling of defeat that accompanies this decision for many people.
I neither believe that you should or shouldn’t take sleep medication, but rather a sleep medication can play an important role in a certain context.
Sleep medicine can be very helpful, while the root cause of the sleep issue is pursued.
Sleep is vital for our wellbeing, so if you need a crutch (the medication) to help you sleep, then it may be well worth using for a limited time. Using a crutch with a broken leg doesn’t heal the leg. The body heals the leg, but the crutch helps healing and once the leg is healed we put away the crutch. Again, this is not meant to be a long term solution but can be valuable in the short term as more lasting solutions are pursued. Any sleeping med that helps you sleep better and wake feeling better is the right medication. The medication is mimicking the chemical that your brain is missing.
Myth #4: You are a “light sleeper”
You may identify as a “light sleeper” for a variety of reasons. For example, you might experience sensitivity to morning light, or faint sounds, or even pain. Whatever wakes you out of sleep, it doesn’t seem to take much.
Many people identify as being “light sleepers” even though they may have been “deep sleepers” in the past, and even though being a “light sleeper” is more of a symptom than a lasting identity.
Isn’t it interesting how others may not be bothered by the same sounds, by the same light or even pain? They just sleep through it.
Additionally, if you’ve experienced issues with pain disturbing sleep, it’s good to be aware that your pain issue might actually be a sleep disorder in disguise. Lack of restorative sleep almost always leads to more pain, which can create a vicious cycle.
Your doctor may have been prescribing pain pills, unaware that lack of nightly healing through sleep may be the reason why you’ve been hurting.
Myth #5: If you can’t sleep, it’s your own fault, you’re doing it wrong
There is certainly value in understanding something called “sleep hygiene,” which consists of behavioral adjustments that can promote better sleep. You may have already heard about doing a calming activity before bed, avoiding blue light and technology before sleep, not eating late night meals or exercising heavily before sleep.
But what happens when you follow all of the sleep hygiene tips and you are still struggling?
It may mean that the root cause is something that sleep hygiene just isn’t meant to solve.
If the chemistry of your brain is suboptimal, that is if you are lacking the proper biochemistry to sleep well, no amount of meditation before bed is going to fix it. You’ll need to give your brain what it needs.
Really, there are 2 primary causes for insomnia:
- A physical cause
- A chemical cause (in the brain).
Let’s explore both.
Physical Causes of Insomnia
Something that is physically preventing you from having restful sleep could be at the root of your sleep issues. This could be as easily resolved as rolling over onto an object, like a hairbrush or as complex as having difficulty breathing through a narrow airway.
In the first example, the physical object caused a painful sensation that forced you to awaken, just as you would if someone was shaking you awake. This is a good thing; your body knowing when to wake up in order to protect you from potential harm.
In the second example, sleep apnea could be causing your insomnia. Sleep apnea has to do with an obstruction to your airway that happens during sleep. You are waking up because you need to breathe.
If you think you might have sleep apnea, or you want to rule out sleep apnea as the reason for insomnia, you want to go see a sleep dentist or a sleep doctor.
Neuro-Chemical Causes of Insomnia
The second cause of insomnia is caused by chemical deficiencies that prevent your body from running your sleep processes effectively. Because your brain doesn’t have the raw material it needs, such as the right vitamins and minerals, you can’t fall asleep, stay asleep, or sleep in a fully restorative way.
RIghtSleep addresses the chemical cause of insomnia, which can present as an obvious sleep issue or as chronic health conditions that find their root cause in non-restorative sleep.
Behavioral Modification for Insomnia
Behavioral modifications used to find relief from insomnia include waking with the sun, healthy sun exposure with sunlight in the eyes in the early morning, exercise during the day, avoiding late night meals and alcohol, avoiding blue light in the evening, keeping the bedroom cool and dark, and pursuing relaxing activities at night to wind down before bed.
For some people, these adjustments can make a meaningful difference in their insomnia. For others, who are experiencing breathing issues or brain chemistry issues, these adjustments provide little to no relief.
Over-the-Counter Medication for Insomnia
Many people find short-term relief with over-the-counter medications such as diphenhydramine or supplements such as: melatonin, valerian root, magnesium, chamomile, and passionflower.
For some people, CBD oil can also promote deeper sleep.
Prescription Medication for Insomnia
Prescription medication can also provide temporary relief for the chemical imbalances that cause insomnia. They may not resolve the root cause, but they may help sleep while the root causes (physical, chemical or both) are explored.
Common prescriptions to treat insomnia include:
Benzodiazepines, such as:
- Temazepam (Restoril)
- Estazolam (Prosom)
- Triazolam (Halcion)
These are sedative medications that promote relaxation and sleep.
Non-Benzodiazepine Hypnotics, such as:
- Zolpidem (Ambien)
- Zaleplon (Sonata)
- Eszopiclone (Lunesta)
These medications are similar to benzodiazepines but are said to have a lower risk of dependence.
Root-Cause Healing for Insomnia
For people experiencing physical issues that impact breathing during sleep, opening up the airway can provide a solution for their insomnia.
A surprising solution for some is mouth tape. Mouth tape forces mouth-breathers to breathe through their nose, which is necessary for proper sleep.
For others struggling with insomnia and chronic health conditions, restoring optimal brain chemistry can restore optimal sleep.
The RightSleep program is about giving your body and brain what it needs to sleep well and feel well. The program consists of; First, acknowledging the profound importance of restorative sleep. Making the necessary changes to give your sleep the respect it deserves. Second, finding and sustaining an optimal vitamin D blood level (deficient in most people) as well as incorporating B vitamins and minerals at key times to bring back a healthy gut microbiome that supports optimal sleep for the long term.
Since chemical-based insomnia is intrinsically connected to vitamin D levels and individuals can be deficient in vitamin D from birth, prevention starts with having a mom with healthy levels of vitamin D during pregnancy.
After that, regular healthy sun exposure, minimizing caffeine and alcohol and regular exercise (outdoors if possible) can help reduce your risk for insomnia.
If you have been vitamin D deficient for a long while, chances are this is impacting your health, and sleep challenges (including insomnia), are starting to appear despite your behavioral interventions.
Luckily, most cases of insomnia are treatable, and reversible. When you understand that brain chemistry is at the root of most insomnia problems, you can restore your sleep to restore your health.