The Question Keeping You Up at Night: Can Insomnia Kill You?

Man with insomnia“With insomnia, nothing’s real. Everything’s far away. Everything’s a copy of a copy of a copy. When you have insomnia, you’re never really asleep and you’re never really awake.”

You may recognize this quote from the 1997 film Fight Club. In the movie, a doctor assures Edward Norton’s character that “no one has ever died of insomnia.” But is this a truthful depiction of reality?

What Is Insomnia?

Insomnia is defined as an inability to obtain the amount of sleep required to function in daily life. It is caused by difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, or awaking prematurely. Short-term insomnia that lasts a night or two can be annoying, but usually just requires an adjustment in sleep hygiene to avoid any major long-term health problems or risks.

Chronic insomnia is a different story. Chronic insomnia occurs when an individual has difficulty achieving adequate amounts of sleep on three or more nights per week for a period of three months or longer. It is this type of long-term insomnia that can pose serious mental and physical health risks for people who experience it.

What Are the Physical and Mental Effects of Insomnia?

Evolutionary biologists and neuroscientists remain somewhat puzzled by the phenomenon of sleep. From an evolutionary perspective, one would expect a species to evolve past the need for sleep, or at least not need so much of it. Especially since, throughout the process, the sleeper is vulnerable to external threats. Since humans sleep away a third of their lives, however, it’s obvious that it’s an important part of our biological makeup and key to survival.

Physically, chronic insomnia is linked to high blood pressure, weight gain, a weakened immune system, and higher inflammation, which can lead to an assortment of illnesses including heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. When we don’t get enough sleep, nearly every aspect of our life suffers. Work performance can degrade, social functioning can be hindered, and many mental health issues can manifest.

“Not getting enough sleep can cause depression symptoms, irritability, poor concentration, anxiety, and mental exhaustion. These symptoms can dissipate with adequate and regular sleep habits. However, prolonged sleep problems and insomnia can lead to an increased risk for developing an anxiety or mood disorder,” said Andrea Risi, LPC, a licensed counselor in Denver.

What’s the Verdict?

When we don’t get enough sleep, nearly every aspect of our life suffers. Work performance can degrade, social functioning can be hindered, and many mental health issues can manifest.

After conducting a 40-year study at the University of Arizona, researchers have concluded that people experiencing chronic insomnia have a 58% increased risk of premature death. Individuals experiencing persistent insomnia are simply more likely to die of heart or lung problems than their sound-sleeping counterparts. Chronic insomnia can also certainly be an indirect cause of death. Evidence suggests that a person with as little as one single night of sleep deprivation is just as impaired as a person who is legally intoxicated.

Insomnia has been the direct cause of death in a very small number of cases. An extremely rare genetic disease called fatal familial insomnia (FFI) leads to exhaustion, dementia, coma, and eventually death. Individuals with this condition are unable to sleep and fall into a state between normal waking and sleeping consciousness. There is no cure for FFI, and the average life span after onset of symptoms is 18 months.

How Is Insomnia Treated?

Treatment options for those experiencing insomnia range from physical exercise, behavioral changes, relaxation techniques, herbal remedies, over-the-counter or prescription drugs, and therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy and phototherapy.

  • Physical activity: Daily physical exercise helps people fall asleep faster, awaken less during the night, and sleep for longer periods of time.
  • Behavioral changes: Keeping a routine sleeping schedule, avoiding or limiting intake of caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine, using the bedroom only for sleep, turning off lights, and eliminating noise and distractions during sleep time are all behavior modifications that can help decrease the occurrence of insomnia.
  • Relaxation techniques: Meditation, deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation (contracting and relaxing the muscles in sequence), and guided imagery are effective ways to calm the mind and body to promote restful sleep.
  • Herbal supplements: If behavioral modification and relaxation techniques aren’t enough, there are several herbal supplements that can help you fall asleep and stay asleep. These include, but are not limited to, valerian, chamomile, kava, passionflower, and lavender.
  • OTC and prescription medications: Medication is an option for those experiencing insomnia, but it should only be utilized under a doctor’s supervision.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy: Cognitive behavioral therapy promotes good sleep hygiene and the use of relaxation techniques. It can be used to change sleep habits and schedules and the expectations one might have about sleep.
  • Phototherapy: A phototherapy (light therapy) session involves sitting near a special light box for a certain period of time on a regular basis. Doing this can help to regulate circadian rhythms, which may help promote sleeping earlier at night or later in the morning.

Even though insomnia is almost never a primary cause of death, sleep deprivation can be detrimental to the quality of life of the person experiencing it. It can contribute to accidents and a range of physical and mental health problems. If you are experiencing persistent insomnia or if poor sleep is wreaking havoc in your life, consider finding a therapist or health professional to help study your sleep and work with you toward a better sleep hygiene routine.

References:

  1. Davies, M. (November 26, 2014). Dying for more sleep? Chronic insomnia could kill you, scientists warn. Daily Mail UK. Retrieved from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2850461/Dying-sleep-Chronic-insomnia-kill-scientists-warn.html
  2. Freedman, J., & Duckworth, K. (September 2012). Mental illnesses: Insomnia. National Alliance on Mental Illnesses. Retrieved from http://www2.nami.org/Template.cfm?Section=By_Illness&Template=/ContentManagement/ContentDisplay.cfm&ContentID=145368
  3. Horng, E., & Stuart, E. (April 26, 2010). Fatal insomnia: When sleeplessness kills. ABC News. Retrieved from http://abcnews.go.com/Nightline/MindMoodNews/fatal-insomnia-sleeplessness-kills/story?id=10479079
  4. Neubauer, D. (2004). Insomnia and psychiatric disorders. Retrieved from http://www.medscape.org/viewarticle/480681
  5. Sleep and mental health. (July 1, 2009). Harvard Health Publications. Retrieved from http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/Sleep-and-mental-health

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  • 7 comments
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  • Bessie

    Bessie

    July 29th, 2015 at 8:01 AM

    If it doesn’t kill you then it makes you feel worse than death!

  • Timothy

    Timothy

    July 30th, 2015 at 7:53 AM

    I always slept terribly growing up and it wasn’t until I started to lose weight and get pretty active that I have found it easier to sleep through the night. I started walking in the evenings and contrary to what I had heard, that exercising will hype yo up too much if you do it before bedtime, truthfully this actually helps me sleep more soundly. I don’t snore, I have lost weight, and I sleep at least 6 hours straight which is a huge feat for me.

  • Brenton

    Brenton

    July 30th, 2015 at 2:57 PM

    I don’t really buy into the whole medicating yourself to sleep either. That is just placing a band aid on the problem without really getting to the bottom of what is actually causing it.

  • Rad

    Rad

    July 31st, 2015 at 7:13 AM

    I never thought that it could have that much of an impact but I know in college I probably could have done a whole lot better in school had I committed to having a good sleep schedule and really taken advantage of getting enough rest.

  • Jayce R.

    Jayce R.

    November 29th, 2018 at 5:48 PM

    I feel anxious. Can’t sleep without the sleeping pills. And to make things worse I think I’m getting addicted to them. How can I make myself feel better and sleep better?

  • liza

    liza

    July 30th, 2019 at 8:32 PM

    I feel anxious. Can’t sleep without the sleeping pills and xanax. And to make things worse I think I’m getting addicted to them. How can I make myself feel better and sleep better?

  • The GoodTherapy Team

    The GoodTherapy Team

    July 31st, 2019 at 8:03 AM

    Hi Liza,

    Thanks for your email. You have reached GoodTherapy, an online therapist directory. If you would like to consult with a mental health professional, please feel free to return to our homepage, http://www.goodtherapy.org/, and enter your postal/zip code into the search field to find therapists in your area. If you’re looking for a counselor that practices a specific type of therapy, or who deals with specific concerns, you can make an advanced search by clicking here: http://www.goodtherapy.org/advanced-search.html

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