Guide to Insomnia and Technology

compiled by Decision Data

Insomnia affects millions of people. In fact, studies show as many as one in four Americans experience insomnia each year. By definition, insomnia is a sleep disorder that makes it hard to fall asleep, stay asleep or fall back asleep after waking up. As a result, those affected are unable to get an adequate amount of sleep each night. 

In his recent bestseller, Why We Sleep, the neuroscientist Matthew Walker wrote: “The decimation of sleep throughout industrialized nations is having a catastrophic impact on our health, our life expectancy, our safety, our productivity and the education of our children.” 

People who experience insomnia may feel tired and have low energy when they are awake. It can make focusing at work or in school challenging, and it can also affect mood and put those afflicted at a higher risk of other health conditions.

Two types of insomnia

  • Short-term (acute) insomnia, which can last for a few days or weeks
  • Long-term (chronic) insomnia, which lasts for more than a month

There are many different reasons someone may develop insomnia, including:

  • Medical conditions
  • Medication side effects
  • Mental health conditions
  • Inconsistent sleep schedules
  • Unhealthy sleep habits

Recent studies have also shown technology use may be preventing adults, teens and children from getting enough sleep. Electronic gadgets are a constant in our lives (many people even take them into the bedroom at night), and this interaction with smartphones, tablets, video games, televisions and laptops could be contributing to low sleep quality. 

Fortunately, there are also a growing number of gadgets and tech solutions available that can help improve sleep.

Causes of Insomnia

The ability to fall asleep and stay asleep is influenced by a variety of things. Lack of sleep makes it harder to concentrate, learn and create memories. Research shows a chronic sleep deficit puts you at higher risk of developing conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity and heart disease.

Your brain communicates when your body needs sleep, releases the hormone melatonin, relaxes your muscles and monitors external factors that influence sleep cycles, such as when it’s light or dark outside. When all these things work together, you are able to fall asleep.

“Insomnia is multi-factorial. People who develop it may have a predisposition toward disruptive sleep, such as family history or genetics,” said Dr. Kelly Baron, Director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at the University of Utah Health. “Generally, something triggers insomnia — a stress or some sort of medical illness, or psychiatric causes like depression.” 

There are several things that can lead to insomnia, including:

Medical Conditions

Medications

  • Antiarrhythmics for heart rhythm disorders
  • Beta blockers, clonidine or diuretics for high blood pressure
  • Corticosteroids to treat inflammation
  • Over-the-counter medications that contain caffeine
  • Cold and flu medicines that include alcohol
  • SSRIs for anxiety or depression
  • Sympathomimetic stimulants for ADHD
  • Thyroid hormones to treat hypothyroidism

If you’re worried that your medications could be contributing to insomnia, talk to your doctor about trying a different medication or adjusting your dosage. Don’t stop taking your medication or make any changes without consulting your doctor.

Mental Health 

Mental health challenges like stress, anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can all make it more difficult to sleep. These types of sleep disturbances could be triggered by specific life events, such as the loss of a loved one, divorce or stress at work or school, or they could be the result of ongoing anxiety, depression or other mental health conditions.

Lifestyle

  • Frequent travel, which can throw off your body’s internal clock, especially when traveling across several time zones.
  • Work schedules, such as graveyard shifts, where you have to sleep during the day, or frequently changing schedules, which can make it hard to get into a sleep rhythm.
  • Eating large meals right before bed, which can lead to heartburn or physical discomfort.
  • Consuming stimulants (caffeine, nicotine) or depressants (alcohol), which can also disrupt sleep.

Sleep Habits

  • Irregular schedule
  • Daytime napping
  • Sleeping in a room with temperature, light or sound extremes
  • Stimulating your brain before bed

Age

Older adults are more likely to have medical conditions, such as an overactive bladder, or take medications for other health conditions that disrupt sleep. 

Technology Disruptions

How to Relieve Insomnia

While many people do suffer from insomnia at some point, there are things you can do to improve your ability to sleep. The first (and easiest) solution is to examine your sleep habits and practice good sleep hygiene. 

“Sleep hygiene refers to recommendations for healthy sleep habits. They are things that are generally good for your sleep,” said Baron. 

Good Sleep Hygiene Habits

  • Spend the right amount of time in bed each night; your specific sleep needs may vary, but there are guidelines based on your age.
  • Establish a regular routine that signals to your body that it’s time to sleep
  • Create a good sleep environment with a comfortable mattress and setting the room temperature between 60 and 68 degrees. If you sleep during the day, consider blackout curtains to block natural light.
  • Use ear plugs, white noise machines or fans for a quieter sleep environment.
  • Limit daytime naps to 20 to 30 minutes, so you are tired at bedtime.
  • Avoid caffeine and other stimulants close to bedtime, and drink alcohol only in moderation.
  • Avoid eating foods late at night that cause discomfort or indigestion, such as carbonated drinks, spicy foods or high-fat meals.
  • Exercise regularly during the day to improve your sleep and make sure you are exposed to adequate natural light during your waking hours to maintain a proper circadian rhythm.
  • Stop using smartphones, tablets, computers and televisions 30 to 60 minutes before bed.

Medications for Sleep

There are also medications that may help you sleep, but it’s important to talk to your doctor before you take a sleep aid.

Over-the-counter or natural sleep aids can help when you experience short-term insomnia (for example, related to jet lag after traveling, or when you are sick). These include: Prescription sleep medications may be prescribed for short-term or long-term insomnia relief if over-the-counter sleep aids and other non-drug interventions have not worked. These include:

Prescription sleep medications may be prescribed for short-term or long-term insomnia relief if over-the-counter sleep aids and other non-drug interventions have not worked. These include:

Sleep aids, including over-the-counter and prescription drugs, may have side effects or interfere with other medications you are taking. Before taking any medications, talk to your doctor.

*Please note that there is an FDA Black Box warning for Non-Benzodiazepine Hypnotics (Ambien, Lunesta and others). Read more here.

Technology That Helps

The Bottom Line

Getting the right amount of restful and restorative sleep is essential for your health. If you experience insomnia, new technologies may offer some assistance in helping you sleep better. Expanded internet research on this topic, as well as joining online support groups can be invaluable, too. In addition to practicing good sleep, hygiene, and working with your doctor for treating insomnia that is related to medical conditions, mental health or medications, these sleep innovations can provide you with the sleep you need to feel healthy and alert throughout the day.

For more information about Insomnia, visit National Sleep Foundation’s official Insomnia hub

Check out Benita Zahn’s The Healthy Runner column: Sweet Sleep where she stresses the need for runners to have healthy sleeping habits.

That Sleep Tracker Could Make Your Insomnia Worse  NY Times

Finally, a Cure for Insomnia?


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