Health / Expert Advice

When Are a Few Sleepless Nights Actually Something More?

Insomnia sleep condition is more than just a night or two of bad sleep.

We all have those nights of tossing and turning, thoughts running amok in our minds—and we just can’t sleep. It’s OK to have a night like this every once in a while. But certain criteria (particularly, how often this occurs) set a regular restless night apart from a condition known as insomnia.

What is insomnia?

You may hear the word insomnia get thrown around a lot. People make it synonymous with just one night of little shut-eye. But experts set specific criteria to pinpoint what it exactly means. Michael Breus, Ph.D., board-certified sleep specialist and founder of The Sleep Doctor, lays out the checklist that would likely lead to an insomnia diagnosis. A person would need to show difficulty falling asleep for more than 30 minutes or experience waking up more than three times a night (for at least 30 minutes), and they would encounter this difficulty falling or staying asleep more than three times a week for more than four weeks.

Breus mentions a few other signs of insomnia, including excessive focus or heightened anxiety about sleep, maintaining that difficulty falling asleep at night but no problem drifting off during other monotonous activities (say, reading or studying), sleeping better away from home, trouble turning off the mind, and muscle tension in bed. If you can check off this list, it’s probably time to see a doctor.

There are also two distinctions in terms of causes of insomnia, according to the National Institutes of Health. If it’s secondary insomnia, it’s likely caused by another condition such as anxiety, asthma, stroke, or menopause. Primary insomnia occurs sans other medical conditions or as a side effect to medication. In these cases, certain life events or big changes can lead to insomnia.

How do you treat it?

If you suspect you have insomnia, first check your sleep schedule. “You ultimately need to get one schedule and stick to it,” Breus says. “This includes the weekends, when many people try to catch up on lost sleep.” Translation: Don’t stay up until midnight on the weekends if you typically go to bed at 10 p.m. Try to hit the hay and get up in the a.m. around the same time every day.

Keeping a sleep diary is also a good idea, so you can record your symptoms if you do need to see a doctor, according to the NIH.

Besides a strict bedtime and wake-up call, the first line of defense against insomnia is cognitive behavior therapy, Breus says. “This is before trying sleeping pills,” he says. CBT is a form of psychotherapy that focuses on finding solutions to problems.

A study published in JAMA also found that mindfulness meditation can be a short-term treatment for symptoms. This includes practicing being more present in the moment and taking more time to focus on your surroundings.

As Breus mentioned, some insomnia sufferers turn to medicine to get a night of good rest. But you’ll want to talk to a doctor before trying anything. Some of these meds include benzodiazepine hypnotics, non-benzodiazepine hypnotics, and melatonin receptor agonists, according to the National Sleep Foundation.

Sleep is essential to a healthy lifestyle—right along with diet and exercise. If you’re not getting that seven to eight hours a night on a regular basis, it’s time to find out why and then take the necessary steps to catch more zzz’s.

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