Insomenia (August 25, 2020)
Before you leap to your phone to text me, yah, I know the word is properly spelled "insomnia" (defined as 'difficulty in falling or staying asleep') and not "insomenia". But that odd spelling is a tribute to one of my favorite teachers, originally from Taiwan, who always very carefully pronounced it exactly that way. So I often use the term in his honor. Except that today, both in the interests of clarity and of keeping cuteness to a minimum, I won't do so again.
This newsletter (and the next one too) is a revision and update of an article I wrote a couple of years ago, because I've been hearing more and more often from people that they are having sleep problems. You shouldn't have to have this one make sense, but should you actually wish to do so you can find it at
This sort-of epidemic of insomnia is almost certainly due to the general increase in anxiety and stress these days, both of which are sleep killers even when our society is functioning in a more normal fashion. If insomnia is a new problem for someone, or they had it before but now it's worse, increased stress/anxiety is probably the culprit.
Physiology doesn't always make sense to us (although it always makes good sense to the body), but in this case it does. If things are nuts and you're worried, your brain wants to stay awake until it figures things out. Unfortunately, the current State of Crazy will probably be around for a while and you need your sleep to stay functional and healthy. Consumer Reports: "Chronic insomnia has been linked to a slew of health problems, including increased risk of anxiety, depression, weight gain, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes." And all that is completely aside from the fact that you're miserable without enough sleep.
If somebody's insomnia is a nonmedical issue (sleep apnea, periodic limb movement disorder/restless leg sydrome, etc., are medical issues), then it can be fixed or at least considerably improved with lifestyle changes. And even if it IS a medical problem, the wrong habit can make it a lot worse (or, if corrected, a lot better). Sadly, as I have said before, there is something about making lifestyle changes for insomnia that gets people's hackles up. Someone who will listen very calmly to you tell them that they can never have hot chicken and Little Debbies for dinner again will completely lose it when you suggest getting off the computer at 8:00 PM.
It is the rare person who wants to hear that they need to stop doing something that they have happily made a regular part of their daily routine. But there's a little more to it than that. Many of our habits are things that we do not just because we like to do them, but because they help us to cope with stressors. I will go so far as to say that if you bridle at changing a habit, it's very likely that you adopted it to cope with a stressor. Smoking, caffeine, soda (sugar and sugar-free both), late-night internet browsing or too much television, excessive exercise or sheer sloth, you name it. More stress might not just cause insomnia on its own, then; it might encourage a habit that interferes with sleep as well.
If you are an insomniac AND you finally realize that it is being either caused or seriously worsened by something you are doing, you will have to fix both the habit and the stressor (or at least find a non-insomnia inducing habit to substitute for it) to get any decent sleep. Keep that in mind when you try to deal with it.
Insomnia-inducing habits are mostly those that produce too much stimulation at a time when your body is trying to get into sleep mode. That can be noise, light, activity, certain substances with lingering action, etc. Our bodies evolved to operate in a certain rhythm with appropriate cues from the environment, and most sleep disruptors interfere with that in some way. So if you're interested in what to do to get better sleep, mainly be thinking about how you can wind down when you need to, instead of staying pumped.
Which brings us to one more thing. Ours is not a culture that respects kicking back and rest UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES WHATSOEVER. People routinely boast about how hard they work and how little sleep they get as though it was somehow praiseworthy. So in trying to get more sleep, you're bucking no end of subtle and not-so-subtle messaging as well. That doesn't help matters.
And it's wrong. Rest and play are good things, not bad ones. Remember that some rabbi once stated, no one has ever said on their deathbed that they wished that they had spent more time at the office. (Or probably, to be fair, that they wish they'd spent more time in bed. But I bet they might say they wish that they had slept late more often. And I know also that no one has ever said that they wish they'd played more Minecraft or watched more re-runs of "Everybody Loves Raymond", either.)
Next time I'm going to go into non-drug related fixes for insomnia, because you really want to avoid those medications unless you like waking up to pictures of yourself on social media doing things that you don't remember doing.
In conclusion: insomnia is a problem that can usually be greatly improved and even eliminated by adopting some regular habits and cutting out a few evening stimulators, and doing that is a very good thing. More next time.
--dr. diane holmes
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