Why beating the insomnia blues could be the key to unlocking holistic health

When it comes to maintaining holistic health, much emphasis is placed on aspects such as diet, exercise and stress management, and arguably not enough emphasis is placed on sleep. The quantity and quality of your sleep can have a profound impact on factors such as your immunity, mental health, cognitive function and even metabolic health.

Now may be a good time to check in on your ‘sleep hygiene’ and create the environment and routines that promote consistent, uninterrupted and restful sleep.

Sleep-deprived or suffering from insomnia?

Commenting on this is Dr Irshaad Ebrahim, specialist psychiatrist at Mediclinic Constantiaberg, who says that very often, the terms ‘sleep deprivation’ and ‘insomnia’ are often used interchangeably, when they are in fact two different conditions. “People often say they are ‘sleep-deprived’, when really what they are referring to is the condition of insomnia, which is a reduction in the amount of total sleep quantity they are getting.

“In contrast, the term ‘sleep deprivation’ usually refers to a deliberate total restriction of sleep that may be self-induced (for example, teenagers partying all night) or induced by someone else (for example, fighter pilots being trained to test resilience). Understanding this distinction is important in being able to diagnose the condition and treat it effectively,” he says.

According to a paper published in the South African Journal of Psychology, over 7% of South Africans suffer from insomnia symptoms, with 3.5% being between the ages of 15 and 24 and 20.5% being 65 years and over.

Symptoms to look out for

The recommended quantity of sleep for adults ranges between seven and nine hours, but this can by no means be standardised, and will differ according to a range of social, geographical and personal factors. The single most important factor in determining whether you are getting enough sleep is how you feel when waking up in the morning, and how efficiently you perform during the day.

If you wake up feeling unrefreshed or find that you are not performing at your optimum during the day, this could mean you are either getting an inadequate quantity or poor quality of sleep.

By definition, insomnia is difficulty initiating or maintaining sleep and/or waking up much earlier than usual. “In order to be diagnosed with insomnia, these symptoms must be present for at least four weeks. They also need to be associated with reduced functioning during the daytime or symptoms of fatigue, poor concentration or mood symptoms during the day,” says Dr Ebrahim.

How insomnia is diagnosed

There are several diagnostic tools that are used to determine whether someone is suffering from insomnia or another sleep disorder. “At Mediclinic Constantiaberg, we have a state-of-the-art Sleep Diagnostic Laboratory equipped with the latest diagnostic and therapeutic devices to be able to conduct the necessary investigations and assist people in overcoming their sleep problems,” he shares.

“Some of our expertise lies in the diagnosis and treatment of conditions such as obstructive sleep apnoea, snoring, disorders of excessive daytime sleepiness (such as narcolepsy), occupational-related sleep disorders such as shift-work sleep dysfunction and sleepy driving, insomnia and restless legs syndrome. Each of these conditions has their own set of unique markers, characteristics and manifestations, which is why it’s important for people to consult an expert before embarking on a course of treatment.”

The effects of prolonged sleep loss

Numerous studies have found that apart from the more obvious effects of insomnia – loss of focus and concentration, poor mental health and emotional issues – the impact can be far more widespread. A study found that sleep loss and sleep disorders can have far-reaching effects on human health.

Some of the long-term effects of prolonged sleep loss include an increased risk of hypertension, diabetes, obesity, depression, heart attack and stroke. There are also a range of co-morbidities to consider, which are the presence of one or more additional diseases or disorders co-occurring with the primary disease or disorder.

Co-morbidities associated with some of the most common sleep conditions including insomnia are sleep-related psychiatric disorders, sleep-related neurological disorders, sleep-related medical disorders, and circadian rhythm sleep disorders.

On this point, Dr Ebrahim asserts that “we’ve found that in women, insomnia is more prevalent in the post-menopausal period compared to their child-bearing years. Likewise, people with chronic medical conditions and mental health issues are more prone to develop insomnia.”

Better sleep hygiene is a few zzzzs away

Although each condition requires a different kind of treatment, there are a few things that everyone can do to improve their sleep hygiene. These include sticking to a regular bedtime and waking schedule, and making sure the time set for bedtime is the time in which you are feeling sleepy.

Generally, it’s recommended that people – particularly those who struggle with the quantity and quality of their sleep – create a bedroom environment that is conducive to sleep, as opposed to watching television or eating in the bedroom. It’s also recommended that any kind of stimulant, including caffeinated drinks and sugar, are avoided at least six hours before bedtime.

As Dr Ebrahim concludes: “In the same way that insomnia and other sleep disorders can have a profoundly negative impact on your life, the inverse is also true. By being proactive about getting better sleep, you can dramatically improve your decision-making abilities, problem-solving skills, the stability of your moods, weight management, and your mental and physical performance.”

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