Insomnia: The science of sleeplessness

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Ah! The wonderful activity that is sleep. It can soothe you, rest you, rejuvenate you and a lack of it can make you very crabby indeed. Find out what causes sleeplessness.

Insomnia: The science of sleeplessnessThe number of hours of sleep one needs varies from person to person. Most adults require a minimum of seven to eight hours of snooze-time daily. As one grows older, this number could go down.

Studies have shown that sleep goes through a variety of stages through the night. While the brain remains active through the duration of your sleep, different things happen at different stages. Certain stages help us to feel well rested and full of energy the following day, while others help in learning or making memories.

What is insomnia?

Insomnia or sleeplessness is a common affliction of our times. Insomnia is caused by a variety of factors including tension, mental strain, excessive use of stimulants like tea and coffee, lack of physical exercise and sleeping in crowded and filthy rooms. Studies show that 30-50% of the general population is affected by insomnia and 10% has chronic insomnia. Insomnia should be distinguished from sleep deprivation or curtailment, in that insomnia occurs despite adequate opportunity for sleep. Heaviness of head, nausea, body ache, fatigue, burning sensation in eyes, etc. are all symptoms of insomnia. Occasional insomnia is not hazardous but if it’s persistent it may affect the overall health of a person. It can affect people of any age group.

Major causes of insomnia

Psychological causes:

Anxiety, stress or depression can have an adverse effect on a person’s sleep and lead to insomnia.

Physical causes:

  • Hormonal changes in women: Women going through menopause, pregnancy, menstruation, and premenstrual times may experience bouts of insomnia.
  • Decreased melatonin: Melatonin is the hormone that controls sleep. With age, the amount of melatonin tends to decrease and this can lead to disturbed or inadequate sleep.
  • Pain: Pain due to an illness or accident can cause problems in sleep.
  • Genetic effects: Although research is still underway on this, many experts believe that  certain genes can affect insomnia.

Sleep Disorders:

Sleep disorders like Sleep Apnoea, caused by abnormal pauses in breathing and Restless Leg Syndrome can cause insomnia.

Temporary or lifestyle causes:

  • Overdose of stimulants: Caffeine intake just before bed leads to sleep distortion. Nicotine as well as excessive drinking is also known interrupt sleep.
  • Intensive travelling: Sometimes air travel for longer durations can cause insomnia.
  • Untimely working hours: Working early in the mornings or late at night causes trouble with one’s sleep.
  • Medications: insomnia or sleep distortion may occur due to side effects of some medications a person takes. According to the National Sleep Foundation, medicine taken for colds and allergies, high blood pressure, heart disease, thyroid disease, asthma and antidepressants can cause insomnia.

Environmental causes:

Too much noise, light, extreme temperatures and multiple interruptions are certainly not helpful if you’re trying to get a good night’s sleep.

Reviewed by Dr. Vikram Rathi

Photograph by Stephanie Hofschlaeger via

Also read: Get a good night's sleep with these methods of combating insomnia