Insomnia and Your Brain

March 13, 2017

You’re tired all the time. You have little energy, can’t focus and are irritable. Now you’re making more errors at work and calling in sick more often. You tell coworkers that you’re having problems sleeping. How do you know if this is just a passing problem or a more serious sleep-wake disorder? Recently researchers have described insomnia as a problem of your brain being unable to stop being awake. It is often triggered by an illness or an event that causes physical or psychological distress.

Symptoms of insomnia include difficulty falling asleep, difficulty staying asleep, unrefreshing sleep and waking up too early. Symptoms can also include fatigue, low energy, difficulty concentrating, mood disturbances, behavior problems, and difficulties at work, at school or in personal relationships. Disturbed sleep can affect overall health in many ways. It causes weight gain and cognitive impairment. It increases inflammation, the risk of having an auto accident and of developing Type 2 diabetes.

Poor sleep can also signal the presence of a serious problem such as sleep apnea, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, congestive heart failure and others. Many medications, including some over-the-counter medications, cause a disruption in sleep by decreasing the amount of restorative deep sleep. Caffeine also disrupts sleep and should be avoided after 4 p.m. for many people and after the evening meal for most.

Sleep has several stages that we cycle through four or five times a night. Each stage has a different function and certain chemicals are produced in the brain during sleep that rejuvenate the immune system, help neurons grow, consolidate memories and keep us healthy.

Recently scientists have also discovered the “glymphatic system” in the brain. During deep sleep, this system is activated and flushes waste products out of the brain. Potentially serious consequences may occur when this system is not allowed to work for long periods of time.

How do you know when to get help? If insomnia happens at least three nights per week and for three months or longer, it’s time to see a specialist.

-by Mary Carman, PhD, LP

Originally published in A New View (spring/summer 2015)