This Is How Insomnia Research Brings Treatments Closer To You
Sleep is one of those crucial aspects of our health that we don’t really think about. That is, until we lose our sleep. Your eight hours every night seem like the easiest thing until something disturbs your routine and it feels like falling asleep is next to impossible.
We recently composed a list of reasons why you might be tossing and turning for most of the night instead of getting the recommended 8 hours of deep restorative sleep. This Sleep Awareness Week, however, at FindMeCure we’d like to take a look at what has been done in insomnia research and what studies are doing about sleep disturbances right now. After all, our nightly rest is so important for hormone regulation, weight regulation, healing and repairing tissues and cells, storing memories and overall well-being that any disease prevention and healthy lifestyle education would be incomplete without talking about the impact of sleep and its lack.
When it comes to sleep – how to get more of it, what to do when you can’t and how it affects your mental health – there’s a growing body of research that points to one thing: sleep and sleep-related issues are being taken more seriously and more information is available. The founder of the European Insomnia Network, Dr Dieter Riemann, states that
“Insomnia is increasingly being recognised as an important condition that is detrimental to health, but this is an ongoing process.”
The condition is seen as a risk factor for heart disease and diabetes as well as mental health issues, which makes researchers eager to find out more about what causes it and how it can be effectively treated. What we know so far is that Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for insomnia yields positive results not only in terms of the sleep disorder itself. Alleviating insomnia also impacts other, oftentimes comorbid conditions like depression or schizophrenia. What else is out there?
Diet does matter
Not to sound like a broken record but some cliches are repeated for a reason. Research from Columbia University adds more data to the already existing body of evidence that poor diet can negatively impact sleep patterns. The participants in this study are women over 50 but the results may have a wider significance.
The researchers behind the study believe that identifying risk factors can lead to finding better, lower-cost treatments with fewer side effects than medication or CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy). Looking into the associating between different dietary choices and sleep disturbances, they found a link between diets high in refined carbohydrates (especially added sugars) and insomnia. Soda, white bread, white rice, added sugar were the main offenders, however, researchers admit that correlation does not always imply causation. In other words, it might be the case that people who have trouble sleeping through the night are more likely to indulge in sugary foods as a way to get more energy.
On the other hand, the quick drop in blood sugar levels (which happens after consuming refined carbs) leads to the release of adrenaline and cortisol – hormones that can cause sleep disturbances. Fruits and vegetables, as a contrast, are unlikely to cause this spike in blood sugar, which makes them a healthy option when you crave something sweet but don’t want to risk your 8 hours.
Persistent insomnia – higher risk of premature death
Taking insomnia seriously, according to researchers, will impact treatment decisions and the urgency with which doctors react to the issue. Sleep disturbances that go on for years can not only have a negative impact on the quality of life but also on its duration.
“We hypothesized that insomnia that was persistent over 8 years, rather than intermittent insomnia, was associated with death independent of the effects of sedatives, opportunity for sleep (to distinguish it from sleep deprivation), and other confounding factors in a representative sample of the general adult community.”
This is what motivated lead investigator, Sairam Parthasarathy, and his colleagues to analyze data from a 38 years-long study – the Tucson Epidemiological Study of Airway Obstructive Disease (TESAOD). Even when adjusting for factors that could influence results, Dr Parthasarathy and his team found that the participants who reported persistent insomnia had a 58% risk of dying during the study compared to the no-insomnia group. The risk was due to cardiopulmonary issues.
Too much sleep is not a good sign
On the flip side, too much sleep is not a good thing either. While 7-9 hours is the optimal amount of sleep for adults, consistently getting less than the recommended rest time is not the only risk to your health.
While new research did not found a causation link between ‘long sleep’ (more than 8 hours a night), the team behind the study believes that a closer look at whether long sleep could be a warning sign for stroke will be beneficial. In a group of participants in their 60s it was found that sleeping for longer than 8 hours was linked to 46% risk of stroke. However, the researchers are careful not to imply that restricting the amount of sleep you get can be a form of prevention. Rather, they insist that this increased risk may point out to long sleep being an early warning sign of stroke in older adults.
Personalized treatments are possible
So far, CBT and sleeping pills (along with melatonin supplements) were the only available treatments for insomnia. Of course, alternative practices like acupuncture, meditation, yoga and so on exist and they can inadvertently alleviate sleep disturbances by reducing anxiety and improving overall mental wellbeing.
A study from the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience suggests we can distinguish between 5 types of insomnia, each with its own set of features and factors. This can, as they hypothesize, lead to more personalized treatments for insomnia. The research team found that what we know as insomnia actually represents five different disorders that can be set apart by the differences in brain activity, circumstances, personality traits, etc.
The insomnia types these researchers were able to identify were stable, meaning that the differences between them persisted throughout a period of 5 years, and they were also characterized by different responses to treatment (CBT and medication). Risk of depression also set the five types apart.
Research on insomnia is going strong with a lot of studies focusing on less conventional treatments that haven’t been explored so far. One study in Florida, for example, is investigating the impact of Transcranial magnetic stimulation in participants with sleep disturbances – a non-invasive treatment that helps people with depression who don’t benefit from antidepressants, previously not among the treatment options for insomnia.
Another one, in China, is looking into the possible benefits of a magnetic field modulation device in the form of a pillow. A study in Taiwan is testing the therapeutic effects of laser acupuncture in perimenopausal women. As you can see, many potential treatments could soon be widely available. If you want to access any of them right now, you can join a clinical trial to see whether your insomnia will benefit from acupuncture, TMS, a higher dose of melatonin or a type of CBT. You can also join an observational study and help researchers gain a better understanding of sleep disturbances and its many factors.