Insomnia’s Surprising Causes

Daily Health Solutions, Featured Article, Healthy Living, Sleep
on September 20, 2011

We’ve all had days where we struggled to stay awake at our desks, due to a late night out or a sleepless night with a newborn. But insomnia appears to be a growing problem—a Harvard University study estimated that sleepy workers cost the U.S. $63 billion in lost productivity every year. If falling asleep (or waking up in the middle of the night) is a persistent problem, you may need to rule out one of these five surprising causes.

Family history. A study presented at the 4th World Congress on Sleep Medicine in September 2011 found that people with a family member who suffers from insomnia are 67 percent more likely to have insomnia themselves. More research is needed to uncover whether the link is genetics or situational. But if insomnia runs in your family, take extra care to stick to a strict sleep schedule: Go to sleep and wake up at the same time 7 days a week, and limit bedroom activities to slumber and sex only.

Clocks. Almost everyone has one in the bedroom, since you likely need some kind of time-telling device to ensure you get up. But alarm clocks can actually interfere with your sleep, especially if they boast a bright read-out. “Light stimulates the wake center in the brain,” says Dr. Howard Steiner, director of the Sleep Center at Good Samaritan Hospital in Baltimore, Md.  

Even clocks that don’t emit bright light can be trouble. When you’re trying to fall asleep, one of the worst things you can do is check the time—the anxiety about how late it’s getting can make things worse. Set your alarm and then turn the clock away from you to avoid the temptation of looking.

Depression. We tend to think of a depressed person staying in bed all day and night and sleeping a lot. But in fact, it’s far more common for people who are depressed to suffer from insomnia. “If you’re waking up at 4 a.m., that’s sometimes a marker of depression,” Steiner says.

If you frequently have trouble sleeping but have never been screened for depression, talk to your doctor. The good news is that patients who are treated for both insomnia and depression at the same time often fare better than those who are only concentrating on one disorder. A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine in May 2011 found that older adults with insomnia benefited significantly from individualized counseling.

Sleep aids. Do you occasionally rely on an alcoholic nightcap or a mild sedative like Benadryl to help you get to sleep? If you’re still suffering from insomnia, sleep aids could actually be the problem. “As they wear off, these kinds of substances can be stimulating,” Steiner says. Never try to knock yourself out with alcohol, and talk to your doctor if you think you might need to be prescribed a sleep aid. He or she can ensure you get the correct dosage and that there are no interactions with other medications.

Silence. Sleep problems tend to be individual, but if you’re one of those people who can’t keep your mind from racing as you lie in bed at night, you might actually need a distraction. “As a rule of thumb, noise and light keep people awake, but some people need to listen to something or have the TV on, and that’s fine,” Steiner says. “It’s not something that I typically prescribe for patients, but if it gets your mind off your worries and helps promote a relaxed state, I don’t see why you shouldn’t.”