Almost everyone has trouble falling asleep at some point in their lives. However, staying awake at nights, disturbed sleep for several days at a stretch or always waking up feeling tired can at times be more dangerous than you can think.
Chronic sleep deprivation, also known as insomnia or sleeplessness, can significantly compromise a person’s health, performance and safety.
"Sometimes insomnia is a symptom of something else, like depression or hypertension," says Charles Morin, a professor of psychology at Université Laval in Quebec City, Canada. "But it can also be a cause of the problem. It can go in both directions."
According to a US National Health Interview Survey, those suffering from insomnia are five times more likely to develop psychological problems such as depression and anxiety and twice as likely to develop heart conditions. Sleeplessness can cause decreased performance and alertness, memory and cognitive impairment, stress, mood disorders and even obesity.
The positive side of the picture is that insomnia is treatable. When detected in early stages, it can be cured thereby preventing other health problems from developing. However, most people take too long to recognize sleeplessness as a health scare.
Insomnia is one of the most common sleeping disorders, yet one that often goes undetected and untreated. The fact that very few people are aware of this condition makes insomnia even more alarming, because when left untreated it can compound the consequences.
"Most people won't go to their physicians right away for insomnia. They go to the drug store instead," Morin says.
People suffering from insomnia try to address the issue with sleeping pills, which can make the problem even worse. There is little evidence if any, that such pills could address chronic sleep disorders. They are intended to address short-term problems and cannot put an end to years of sleeplessness.
Experts believe treating insomnia with cognitive behavioural therapy has proved to be effective. The therapy lasts four to eight weeks, in which the patient is trained how to sleep again. This includes ways of developing healthy sleeping habits, going to bed only when one feels drowsy and coming out of bed when sleep does not come. Insomniacs are also taught methods of relaxing their minds and shutting out thoughts that would keep them awake all night.
The therapy has proved to work to some extent for 70 to 80 percent of the patients and completely curing 40 percent of those who seek treatment.
Given the shortage of therapists who practice this, Morin notes that group therapies, telephonic consultations with doctors and self-help internet sites are also ways in which insomnia patients can get to know the basics of treating their sleeping disorders.