Insomnia is a sleep disorder characterized by the inability to sleep and/or to remain asleep for a reasonable period during the night. Sufferers typically complain of being unable to close their eyes or "rest their mind" for more than a few minutes at a time. Sleeping problems can include difficulty falling asleep, easily disrupted sleep, difficulty returning to sleep, waking up too early in the morning, and unrefreshing sleep.
A 2005 survey titled “Sleep In America,” conducted by The National Sleep Foundation reported the following findings from recent poll questions related to insomnia:
- 76% of respondents reported experiencing at least one symptom of a sleep disorder a few nights a week or more.
- 73% report daytime sleeping at least 3 times a week.
- 61% report that sleepiness on the job interferes with the amount of work they get done.
- 37% have dozed off while driving.
- 60% have driven while drowsy during the past year.
- 59% experience one or more symptoms of insomnia at least a few nights a week.
Types of Insomnia
Transient Insomnia - Transient insomnia lasts up to one week and often occurs in response to stressful events in a person’s life, such as a new job, upcoming deadlines, or exams. In many people, it recurs each time stressful events arise. Intermittent Insomnia: Intermittent insomnia lasts for 1 to 6 months and usually occurs when more serious and ongoing stress is present. This frequently includes extreme mental stress like injury, loss of loved ones, financial crisis, or physical factors like noises, sounds, or uncomfortable sleeping arrangements.
Chronic Insomnia - Chronic insomnia is any insomnia that lasts more than 6 months. People with chronic insomnia frequently have a lifestyle or other medical issues that contribute to their sleeplessness. This includes: chronic pain, frequent headaches, depression and most other mood disorders, many medications, stimulant or alcohol use, sleep apnea, RLS (Restless Leg Syndrome), and shift work.
Sleep Disorders & Neurotransmitter Levels
Sleep disorders are among the most common neurotransmitter-related conditions. Others include anxiety disorders, compulsive behaviors, depression, and migraines. Environmental and biological factors—including stress, poor diet, neurotoxins or genetics—can cause imbalances in the levels of neurotransmitter chemicals in the brain. These imbalances can trigger or exacerbate insomnia symptoms.
Neurotransmitters are chemicals that relay signals between nerve cells, called “neurons.” They are present throughout the body and are required for proper brain and body functions. Serious health problems, including depression and anxiety, may occur if certain neurotransmitter levels are too high or too low. Every neurotransmitter behaves differently.
Some neurotransmitters are inhibitory and tend to calm, while others are excitatory and stimulate the brain. Deficiencies involving the central nervous system’s neurotransmitter—serotonin and norepinephrine—appear to be involved in the development of sleep disorders.
Few doctors treat insomnia as a neurotransmitter imbalance. Neurotransmitters are made from various components of food in a normal, healthy diet. Increasing the amounts of these dietary constituents can help maintain normal neurotransmitter levels and relieve insomnia.
Most of the drug-based methods used to treat insomnia include chemicals that either imitate a neurotransmitter or redistribute existing neurotransmitters. Many affect serotonin, and some affect other neurotransmitters like GABA, norepinephrine, or dopamine.
It is generally believed that drugs supporting serotonin signaling will be beneficial when insomnia results from a lack of serotonin and that GABA supporting drugs will be effective when a person’s symptoms are caused by a lack of GABA. While the idea of matching a drug to a chemical imbalance is generally supported, the vast majority of healthcare providers prescribe psychological drugs based on a patient’s symptoms. This may explain why some drugs are ineffective for some patients.
While no program can guarantee success for everyone, it is worthwhile to effectively match a drug-based and/or nutrient-based program to the specific needs of the individual.