July 1, 2020
Guide to Insomnia and Technology by Decision Data
A grey cat snoozes peacefully on a cloth couchSource: Envato Elements
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.
People who experience insomnia may feel tired and have low energy when they’re awake. It can make focusing at work or in school challenging, it can 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
- 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 take them into the bedroom at night). 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 a 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, and relaxes your muscles. It also 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,” said Dr. Kelly Baron, Director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at the University of Utah Health. “People who develop it may have a predisposition toward disruptive sleep, such as family history or genetics. Generally, something triggers insomnia — stress, some sort of medical illness, or psychiatric causes like depression.”
Medical Conditions That May Cause Insomnia
|Acid Reflux||Pain associated with acid reflux can keep you from falling asleep and staying asleep.|
|Asthma||Difficulty breathing can contribute to insomnia.|
|Alzheimer’s Disease||Sleep changes are more frequent in later stages of the disease but may affect people with early-stage Alzheimer’s, as well.|
|Cancer||Causes pain that makes it difficult for patients to fall asleep and stay asleep.|
|Chronic Pain||Conditions like back pain or fibromyalgia can contribute to insomnia. Lack of pain can also intensify the pain.|
|Diabetes||Individuals with diabetes are at a higher risk of developing conditions that make it difficult to sleep, including sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome.|
|Parkinson’s Disease||Severe symptoms, such as tremors or pain, can affect sleep — especially if medications wears off in the middle of the night.|
Medications That May Cause Insomnia
- Antiarrhythmics for heart rhythm disorders
- Beta blockers, clonidine, or diuretics for high blood pressure
- Cold and flu medicines that include alcohol
- Corticosteroids to treat inflammation
- Over-the-counter medications that contain caffeine
- SSRIs for anxiety or depression
- Sympathomimetic stimulants for ADHD
- Thyroid hormones to treat hypothyroidism
If you’re worried 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 challenges like stress, anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can make it increasingly 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. They could also be the result of ongoing anxiety, depression, or other mental health conditions.
- Consuming stimulants (caffeine, nicotine) or depressants (alcohol) can disrupt sleep
- Eating large meals before bed can lead to heartburn or physical discomfort
- Frequent travel 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. Both can make it hard to get into a sleep rhythm
- Daytime naps
- Irregular schedule
- Sleeping in a room with temperature, light, or sound extremes
- Stimulating your brain before bed
Older adults are more likely to have medical conditions, such as an overactive bladder, or take medications for other health conditions that disrupt sleep.
|Blue Light||Melatonin is a hormone your body releases to signal to your brain that it’s time to go to sleep. Screens from smartphones, tablets, laptops, and televisions emit artificial blue light that suppresses melatonin. Our eyes are not very good at blocking blue light, so viewing screens within one hour of bedtime can negatively impact sleep.|
|Brain Activity||Stimulation from technology can also make it harder to relax, especially if you take electronics to bed. Working on a laptop, scrolling the news or social media on your smartphone, or watching television can disrupt sleep.|
|Sleep Disruptions||Even if you are careful not to use your devices before bed, keeping them on your bedside table can still disrupt sleep if you receive alerts throughout the night. This is especially true for children and teens, since 72 percent report sleeping with electronic devices in their bedroom.|
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,” said Baron. “They are things that are generally good for your sleep.”
Good Sleep Hygiene Habits
- Avoid caffeine and other stimulants close to bedtime, and only drink alcohol in moderation
- Avoid eating foods late at night that cause discomfort or indigestion, such as carbonated drinks, spicy foods or high-fat meals
- 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
- Establish a regular routine that signals to your body it’s time to sleep
- Exercise regularly during the day to improve your sleep.
- Make sure you’re exposed to adequate natural light during your waking hours to maintain a proper circadian rhythm
- Limit daytime naps to 20 to 30 minutes so you’re tired at bedtime
- Spend the right amount of time in bed each night; your specific sleep needs may vary, but there are guidelines based on your age
- Stop using smartphones, tablets, computers and televisions 30 to 60 minutes before bed
- Use earplugs, white noise machines, or fans for a quieter sleep environment.
Medications For Insomnia
There are also medications that may help you sleep, but it’s important to talk to your doctor before taking 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).
|Over-the-Counter Sleep Aid||Effect|
|Diphenhydramine (Benadryl, Aleve PM) and Doxylamine (Unisom)||Sedating antihistamines that can cause drowsiness and other side effects even after you wake up.|
|Melatonin||A supplement that, like the naturally-occurring hormone in your body, can regulate your sleep-wake cycle.|
|Valerian||A plant-based supplement that is sometimes used as a sleep aid, but there is not much scientific evidence of sleep benefits.|
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 haven’t worked.
|Prescription Sleep Medication||Effect|
|Antidepressants (Trazodone, Amitriptyline, Dozepine)||Studies are inconclusive on how well these work to address insomnia.|
|Benzodiazepines (Flurazepam, Diazepam and others)||Drugs that enhance the neurotransmitter GABA, slowing brain activity to help you fall asleep. These do have side effects and some evidence suggests they can become less effective over time.|
|Non-Benzodiazepine Hypnotics (Ambien, Lunesta and others)*||Similar to benzodiazepines, but target fewer receptors in your brain.|
*Please note that there is an FDA Black Box warning for Non-Benzodiazepine Hypnotics (Ambien, Lunesta and others). Read more here.
|Melatonin (Ramelteon)||A prescription form of the hormone melatonin.|
|Orexin Receptor Antagonists||The newest class of insomnia drugs approved by the FDA that work by inhibiting the activity of the chemical orexin (which keeps you awake and alert).|
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.
Technology That Helps Insomnia
Technology is emerging that may help improve your sleep. Some of these technologies monitor your body during sleep, others monitor and adjust your sleep environment, and others address physical conditions that can make it harder to sleep.
Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines have been around for several decades, but are evolving to include better technology.
Today they’re quiet, easy to use, and can make adjustments in real time with an algorithm. Some can also send data via cloud-based apps in real time for monitoring.
|People who experience sleep apnea can benefit significantly from using a CPAP machine. |
Talk to your doctor about participating in a sleep study to determine if you need one.
|Light Therapies||Light boxes can help your body stay in a better circadian rhythm, especially if you live in a place where it’s dark for significant parts of the day. |
Other light therapies like “sunrise solution” alarm clocks slowly increase light 30 minutes before your wake-up time. This is a natural indicator to your body that it’s time to get up.
|People with circadian disruptions can benefit from light boxes. |
If you sleep with blackout curtains during the day or have to wake up before sunrise, a sunrise alarm clock may help you wake up more naturally.
|Non-wearable Sleep Monitors||If wearing something around your wrist, finger, or head all night bothers you, there are non-contact sleep trackers that go above or below your mattress, or on your bedside table. |
They monitor breathing, room temperature, snoring and other things that could affect your sleep.
|If you prefer not wearing something to bed, or you’re concerned about snoring (and potentially sleep apnea), these can provide the information you need with less discomfort.|
|Online Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I)||CBT-I is an FDA-approved way to treat insomnia without medications. This is achieved through sleep assessments, changes to sleep habits, and better sleep hygiene. |
It’s a safe and effective option for managing chronic insomnia and is widely used by behavioral sleep medicine clinicians.
CBT-I is now available online through web or app-based programs like Somryst (requires a prescription) and Sleepio.
|CBT-I is an evidence-based approach to treating insomnia, which means it’s been shown to improve sleep in randomized clinical trials. |
It’s most effective for adults with chronic insomnia.
|Sleep Tracker Headband||Devices you wear around your head that use electrodes to record brain activity. |
This is similar to the technology that you would find in a sleep monitoring study, and some offer the ability to send data to a sleep specialist rather than going to a sleep lab for a study.
They offer more in-depth monitoring than wearable or non-wearable devices, but may be uncomfortable.
|If you want more in-depth information about your sleep stages and brain activity during the night, these devices offer deeper analysis than other wearable trackers.|
|Smart Beds||Some mattresses have wearable trackers while others have the technology integrated into the mattress. |
They include features like raising your upper body to reduce snoring or adjusting the temperature if you get hot or cold.
|If you suffer from restless sleep, snore a lot, or frequently wake up feeling too hot or too cold, a smart bed can help. |
These beds vary widely in price and available features.
|Wearable Sleep Trackers||Several brands offer sleep tracking as part of a fitness tracker that you wear around your wrist, including Nike, Apple Watch, Fitbit, Nokia and Polar. |
These devices track biological signs of sleep (such as heart rate or blood oxygen levels) and can provide guidance to improve sleep through an app.
|These devices work well for people who don’t mind wearing them to bed. |
Many provide additional features for overall health and fitness tracking besides just sleep.
|White Noise Machines||White noise blocks out small background noises that keep you from falling asleep or wake you up in the night. |
You can find white noise machines that just block out noise. Some create soothing sounds to help you sleep, such as nature sounds.
|If you live in a noisy environment, work odd hours and need to sleep while others are awake, these machines help. They also benefit those who are highly sensitive to noises and wake easily.|
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.
These sleep innovations can provide you with the sleep you need to feel healthy and alert throughout the day.
You should also practice good sleep hygiene and work with your doctor to treat conditions or adjust medications that may aggravate your insomnia.
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