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Why Insomnia Is More Than Not Being Able to Fall Asleep

Laura Bogart's work has appeared in Salon, The Guardian, The Atlantic, Tin House, SPIN, Indiewire, GOOD, and Refinery 29 (among other publications). She has also worked in health care communications.

This is what's going on in your brain when you have insomnia

We’ve all had those nights when “one more episode” becomes a binge-watch until dawn or nights spent tossing and turning when that midafternoon latte turns our usual 40 winks into four winks.

Everyone experiences periodic bouts of sleeplessness — which can have a whole range of causes, like hormones or illness, trouble adjusting after daylight savings time or a serious compulsion to find out how Eleven and her friends save Hawkins from yet another creature from the Upside Down — and we may joke that this makes us insomniacs. But insomnia isn’t just missing some sleep now and again; it’s a serious medical condition that can impact the quality of your life.

But what separates a delayed caffeine buzz or a love for ‘80s horror-inspired thrillers from actual clinical insomnia? Dr. Carl Bazil, director of the division of epilepsy and sleep at New York-Presbyterian and Columbia University Medical Center, tells SheKnows that “insomnia is inability to get to sleep or to stay asleep long enough to feel alert during the day. ‘Night owls’ sleep just fine so long as they are allowed to go to bed late and to sleep in late.”

Brazil adds that people with insomnia differ from garden-variety light sleepers because “light sleepers may awaken more easily with noises or other disturbances, but can get back to sleep easily and get enough sleep.”

Insomnia has a variety of underlying physical causes, such as chronic pain, allergies and sinus congestion, arthritis, asthma, hyperthyroidism, hypertension and gastrointestinal issues. Depression and anxiety can also contribute to prolonged sleeplessness. Though insomnia is a symptom of these other conditions, it’s a serious health condition in its own right. Bazil says sleeplessness can negatively impact your waking life — especially your concentration.

“Accidents are also more common when [people are] sleep-deprived,” he says. But this heavy and constant exhaustion isn’t just likely to make you rub your eyes and miss that stop sign — it can have long-term deleterious effects on other unseen aspects on your health.

“If [lack of sleep is] chronic… it increases risk of infection, decreases immune function and may be related to other health problems,” Bazil says. Insomnia can put you on a hamster wheel of unhealthiness — lack of sleep can make you sick, and sickness can keep you from sleeping.

Sometimes, taking a natural supplement like melatonin or drinking a cup of chamomile tea is enough to punch your ticket to Dreamland. However, sometimes, we need a little medical intervention: “Occasional insomnia is pretty much universal, but if you always lie in bed for long periods of time (30 minutes or more), either getting to sleep at night or awakening too early, you should ask your doctor,” Bazil says. “Most general practitioners have some experience with sleep disorders, but if yours isn’t sure how to proceed, you should consider seeing a sleep specialist.”

More: Does Melatonin Really Help You Sleep?

According to the National Sleep Foundation, “researchers have begun to think about insomnia as a problem of your brain being unable to stop being awake (your brain has a sleep cycle and a wake cycle — when one is turned on the other is turned off — insomnia can be a problem with either part of this cycle: too much wake drive or too little sleep drive).”

This research is yielding interesting and potentially life-changing results. “Behavioral treatments are always important, as these can teach your brain better sleep habits,” Bazil explains. “In the short term, medications can also help with training you to sleep better but are never a long-term solution. For chronic insomnia, cognitive behavioral therapy can be very helpful and can be done online or with a live therapist.”

More: Does Lavender Really Help You Sleep Better?

Whether you find yourself constantly staring at the ceiling, counting down the last few precious moments before your alarm clock blares or have a few rough bouts of sleepless nights now and again, it’s important to be healthy and balanced — that means eating well, exercising and summoning the willpower to press pause on that Netflix queue. And if you think you are dealing with insomnia, it's probably best to see your doctor to come up with a treatment solution to fit your needs.

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