Understanding Insomnia & Sleep Disorders

Our motivation, energy, concentration, behaviour, memory, mood and ability to learn are all affected by lack of sleep. Sleep issues underlie a wide range of mental health problems and can cause or exacerbate symptoms in ADHD, depression, OCD, anxiety and general learning, behavioural or mood disorders.

More than a third of Australians report having insufficient sleep and studies show children today sleep 75 minutes less than 100 years ago. People who get less sleep than required often don’t notice that their energy is lower than that of well-rested people, which indicates that sleep issues are more common than we might think.

In many cases, sleep problems like insomnia can be improved with a few simple lifestyle changes. These simple insomnia treatments can also lead to positive changes in other areas of your health. Whether a sleep disorder is part of a mental illness or is an issue of its own, it is important to appreciate sleep and understand its important connection to our health and wellbeing.

Sleep disorders can be caused by at least one of the following categories:

Psychological Causes

Sleep issues are common in people who have experienced a distressing situation, such as grief, trauma, a difficult relationship or work environment. These are psychological causes of a sleep disorder which are often temporary and can be helped when the person learns strategies to cope better with these experiences. However, in many cases, prolonged sleep issues may actually cause or exacerbate Depression, Anxiety and ADHD.

Substance-related Causes

Alcohol, caffeine, illicit or prescribed medications directly affect our central nervous system which can then alter the body’s natural ‘circadian rhythm’ (or “sleep clock“). Even when these substances feel to have a sleep-inducing effect, this is often due to the substance’s sedative properties, which is different from falling asleep naturally.

Medical Causes

Diabetes, neurological disorders, breathing issues, heartburn and restless legs syndrome are examples of chronic conditions which can have a negative effect on sleep. Specialist physicians should be consulted in these cases to make the best possible effort to alleviate the illness. Sleep and insomnia treatment should therefore be seen as a complex interdependent process, which would ideally be addressed concurrently to the illness.

Environmental Causes

Sleep is quite regularly affected by a number of evolving environmental conditions which have evolved from a fast-paced society. Light pollution, noise pollution, shift-work, unhealthy food all have a role to play in our health and can affect sleep more than is generally understood. Exposure to bright blue light in the evening (or not being exposed to enough sunlight during daylight hours) plays a key role in sleep (see below.)

Understanding the effects of blue light on the body’s internal clock

Smartphones, tablets, laptops, computers, LED and fluorescent light bulbs emit a high spectrum blue light the human body more naturally needs during daylight hours. In the morning exposure to blue spectrum light from the sun helps calibrate the body’s internal “circadian” clock, making it easier to fall asleep at night.

In the evenings our eyes ideally need to avoid blue light to give our bodies the signal it is the time to unwind and fall asleep. Overexposure to blue light in the evenings counteracts the body’s natural release of sleep-inducing melatonin. It helps to be mindful of your exposure to blue light and while it is virtually impossible to block out all blue spectrum light sources there are a few simple changes you can make to help limit your exposure.

Here are some simple solutions to avoid exposure to blue light in the evenings, contributing to your overall insomnia treatment:

  • Use applications on your smartphone, tablet, laptop or desktop computer, which automatically adjusts the colours of your display to warmer colours at the appropriate times in your location:
    • If you use an Apple device (iPhone, iPad, Mac, MacBook, Apple Watch) make sure to set the Nightshift function.
    • If you use Windows 10, Windows Phone or a Google Pixel device, make sure to set the Night Light function.
    • For all other smartphone and tablet devices, you can access the Blue Light Filter app
    • For all other operating systems on a desktop or laptop computer, you can download and install F.Lux software
  • Keep your household lighting dim, especially in the 2 hours before bedtime. Avoid using your bright LED, Fluorescent (CFL) or Halogen lights (commonly installed as energy saving options in many households). In the 2 hours before bedtime opt for turning on dim light sources such as a low wattage table lamp, ideally fitted with an incandescent bulb or special low blue light bulbs
  • A simple solution is to wear Blue Light Blocking Glasses (also available to fit over prescription glasses) 2 hours before bedtime. These are an inexpensive solution and ideal if you are watching programs/ playing games on a TV, tablet or laptop.
Understanding Insomnia & Sleep Disorders
Understanding Insomnia & Sleep Disorders

Tips to help your body prepare for sleep naturally

Keep a routine

The body “gets used“ to falling asleep at certain times, try to get your body into a healthy routine and stick to it. On weekends, the time you wake up shouldn’t differ more than 1.5 hours from your regular wake up times during the week.

Be mindful of “screen time“

Try to replace “screen time“ with different activities; reading a book, yoga, relaxing to music. Consider blue light blocking glasses, or dimming the light of the screen to warmer colours if you do watch something on a screen.

Exercise during the day

Regular cardiovascular exercise during the day, particularly in the morning or early afternoon, can help deepen sleep. It is not recommended to exercise within the 2 hours before bedtime.

Avoid napping during the day

If you take regular or long naps throughout the day, it will make it harder to fall asleep at night, because you will not have worked up enough “sleep pressure“ or tiredness.

Understand the effects of caffeine

Coffee, tea, cola, many other soft drinks and also chocolate contain caffeine. Your body will find it more difficult to fall asleep if there is caffeine in your system 4 – 6 hours before bedtime.

Understand the effects of alcohol

Many people believe alcohol helps them fall asleep, however, a few hours after drinking, when the alcohol levels in your blood start to fall, there can be a stimulant or wake-up effect, disrupting your circadian rhythm.

Natural Sleep vs. Sedation

Sleeping pills induce sedation rather than natural sleep, and thus should not be used as an insomnia treatment. Sedation can disrupt our natural circadian rhythm, which in turn affects mood, attention and many other negative symptoms in mental health.

Check with your GP…

if you feel any of your prescribed medications are preventing you from falling asleep naturally. Ask about Melatonin supplementation if necessary.

Are you looking for help in understanding or assessing a sleep disorder?

Learn more about Actigraphy Sleep Assessments

Neurofeedback programs to help with sleep

There are many easy and sustainable changes we can make in our daily routine to help us sleep, but some people may find they need extra help in “quietening“ their minds and regulating brain activity.

A QEEG analysis will help determine if this is the case and an appropriate, evidence-based neurofeedback training program may be recommended as a way for the patient to train their brain to self-regulate overactive brain activity associated with feelings of anxiety, obsessions and/or hyperactivity. Studies show Neurofeedback, when delivered correctly and following scientifically-proven protocols, can be effective in 75% of cases (Arns et al. 2012).

Find out more about Neurofeedback

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