Almost every one of us has had the occasional night where we couldn’t fall asleep and felt miserable the next day. But what happens when that occurs night after night. Will it affect our health and, if so, what can we do about it?

Insomnia is defined as difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. It affects almost 40 per cent of Canadians. Chronic insomnia means that for at least three nights every week for at least three months you’ve had difficulty. That has real health implications.

Why does insomnia seem to be an issue now? First, blame the invention of the electric light which turned night into day. Then add on our constantly on the go society with all of its pressures and stress. The cherries on the top are our computers, smart phones and similar devices with their increased connectivity and addictive design. All of these have conspired to make it tougher and tougher to get enough sleep.

Kids who don‘t get enough sleep are irritable and impulsive. They have trouble with concentration and memory and are much less likely to be active. So you have a grumpy kid who doesn‘t do well at school and runs the risk of putting on weight and all that goes along with that.

A recent study reported in the journal Sleep — appropriately enough — indicates similar health issues happen in middle aged and older adults. Their survey of almost 30,000 adults revealed problems with memory and thinking in people with chronic insomnia who were also more likely to be anxious, depressed and diabetic.

There are things that we can do to alleviate insomnia

1) Establish a routine around bedtime. The body needs time to let things wind down and consistency. A bath or shower about an hour or so before bedtime or any other relaxing routine is perfect.

2) Make certain that the environment supports sleep. Not too hot, not too much noise or light.

3) No caffeine or any stimulant for at least four hours before bedtime. For most people this also includes not going to the gym or doing a workout too close to bedtime.

4) Stay away from screens. The blue light stimulates receptors in the retina that cause a reduction in the levels of the sleep hormone melatonin. In fact a recent study showed that by reducing screen time around bedtime or wearing special glasses that blocked out the blue wavelengths, kids were able to get more and better sleep. The same most likely applies to adults too.

5) Make sure there are no underlying health issues such as obstructive sleep apnea that can cause a restless night and affect even children.

6) Drugs should always be the last resort even so called “natural” ones such as melatonin. Temporarily, to get over a specific situation for a night or 2, perhaps, but to rely on them regularly sets you up for long term sleep issues.

Much better to avoid the problem in the first place by practicing wise sleep habits.

Dr. Mitch Shulman is an Assistant Professor, Dept. of Surgery, McGill Medical School and an Attending Physician, Emergency Department, McGill University Health Centre. He’s also the CJAD AM 800 Medical Consultant.

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