By Norbert Herzog and David Niesel
If only getting to sleep were really as easy as counting sheep. More than half of Americans admit to struggling with insomnia a few nights a week.
And the loss of sleep doesn’t just make a person tired, it can affect how long they live. People who average six or fewer hours of sleep each night had higher mortality rates than those who slept seven or more. New research has provided more insight into how people can overcome or prevent insomnia.
Problems falling asleep initially, waking up during the night and then having problems getting back to sleep, feeling tired upon waking in the morning, and waking up before the alarm all count as insomnia — it’s both the ability to fall asleep and stay asleep.
There are two different types: primary (a direct issue with sleep) and secondary (sleep issues caused by an underlying medical condition such as depression, asthma and overuse of alcohol).
Insomnia can lead to other serious medical issues including memory problems, depression and heart disease as well as car accidents.
Common causes of insomnia include stress, emotional issues, physical discomfort, medications, disruptions in a person’s schedule and environmental disturbances like light, noise and temperature.
Many suffering from insomnia rely on medications, such as sleeping pills and sedatives, the most common being over-the-counter antihistamines.
But these drugs can come with significant side effects, particularly for the elderly. Cognitive behavioral therapy, which changes ways of thinking to improve behavior, is recommended for insomnia.
Evidence shows the best ways to prevent insomnia are to maintain a regular schedule, avoid caffeine for the eight hours before bed and especially get some exercise.
While research has long shown the positive relationship between exercise and sleep, a recent study has led scientists at Northwestern University to conclude that sleep may influence exercise more than exercise influences sleep.
This experiment involved a group of women diagnosed with insomnia, divided into two groups — an exercise group and an inactive group. The exercise group performed 30 minutes of moderate exercise several times a week for 16 weeks while the other group was inactive.
The results were encouraging, since those in the active group slept 45 to 60 minutes longer each night, woke less frequently and felt more energized during the day.
The surprise came when the scientists took a detailed look at the diaries the women kept of their exercise and sleep. The effect of exercise seemed to take longer than expected — a full four months. Also, most did not report sleeping better on the nights after they exercised; however, a good night’s sleep helped them exercise better the next day.
People without sleep issues typically experience a more restful night’s sleep after exercising, so why is this not the case for people with insomnia?
It may be that those with sleep disorders are different neurologically. They may have hyper-arousal of the stress system, which takes a prolonged regular exercise regime to overcome.
Further research will be able to answer remaining questions about the timing or intensity of exercise, the effect of different types of exercise and whether this is the case in men as well.
Professors Norbert Herzog and David Niesel are biomedical scientists UTMB.
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