At this time of year, many folks look forward to nestling snug in their beds for a long winter’s nap. But for many, sleep (and visions of sugar plums) doesn’t come so easily.
In fact, nearly 50 percent of older adults report experiencing some type of insomnia. Which isn’t encouraging news…especially since a new study suggests that it often turns into a persistent problem, rather than an occasional nuisance.
Sleep issues stick around long-term
For this new study, researchers with the University of Laval in Canada recruited more than 3,000 men and women and divided them into three categories based on their reported sleep habits.
The first group consisted of so-called “good sleepers” who were satisfied with their sleep and did not take medication to induce it.
The second group consisted of people with some insomnia symptoms, such as having trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking too early at least three times a week. They also tended to use prescription medication to induce sleep between one and three times a week. And their symptoms lasted less than one month.
The third group met all diagnostic criteria for an insomnia disorder. They were dissatisfied with their sleep patterns and had trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking up too early at least three times a week for at least one month. Plus—they reported significant psychological distress or impairments in daytime functioning associated with sleep difficulties. Lastly, they reported using prescription medication to induce sleep three times or more per week.
When the researchers followed up with the participants five years later, here’s what they found:
- 13 percent of the good sleepers developed some type of insomnia
- 38 percent of those who had some either form of insomnia at the start of the study still had it five years later
And the more severe the condition at the study’s outset, the greater the chance of it persisting.
Of course, many experts used to think of insomnia as a short-term, situational problem that resulted from acute stress or worry, most of which eventually resolved itself.
And sure, many health problems often go away if left alone. (Old-time doctors used to call this observation, “the tincture of time.”) But clearly, as this study found, insomnia often does not just go away on its own. On the contrary, persistence is particularly high, especially among those with the most severe symptoms.
Poor sleep is linked to various health problems
Based on these findings, I encourage you to speak with your doctor about any sleep problems that continue beyond a few weeks. Because when insomnia persists over many months or years, it’s associated with a number of negative health outcomes, including anxiety, depression, Type II diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and suicide.
In addition, people with insomnia can develop an obsession about their sleep. They begin to fear not sleeping and the consequences they will suffer during the day. And this emotional distress often feeds into and even perpetuates the sleep problem.
So it’s easy to see how people suffering from insomnia would be tempted to turn to pharmaceutical sleep aids to get the rest they so desperately need. But as I have reported before, these medications come with troubling—and even downright dangerous—side effects.
The good news is, there are safe, natural approaches that can help alleviate insomnia…
Seek out natural sleep remedies
Science shows many people experience improvements in sleep and relaxation by inhaling essential plant oils through aromatherapy. You can apply these essential oils to your skin and/or diffuse them. Both methods work well to induce sleep and relaxation because they both rely on the olfactory nerves of the upper nasal passage, which are wired directly into the brain.
The most effective sleep-inducing essential oils are: lavender, chamomile, orange, peppermint, eucalyptus, and limonene.
Over the last year, our daughter used a topical preparation that combined these essential oils (blended with vitamin E and coconut oil) to help her achieve perfect sleep throughout her pregnancy, labor, and after the birth of our healthy granddaughter in October 2020. So, I know firsthand how effective and safe it is, just as the science shows.
In addition, spending time in the sun, especially during the morning hours, can also help improve your quality of sleep. For one, it stimulates your skin’s natural production of vitamin D, which not only benefits sleep, but also has many other health benefits.
Plus, upon exposure to sunlight, the optic nerve at the back of your eye sends signals to your brain’s pineal gland to start producing serotonin—the “feel-good” neurotransmitter. Then, when darkness descends, your body starts to convert the circulating serotonin into melatonin, which helps you sleep.
Some people also find success learning how to change their sleep and thinking patterns with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). With this form of talk therapy, you typically attend four to eight therapy sessions with a trained specialist. About 70 percent of patients experience some improvements in sleep—which usually continue after CBT treatment ends.
Good sleep (with or without visions of sugar plums) is a fundamental part of good health. So—as with any other critical physical function—an ounce of prevention goes a long way.
P.S. For additional ways to improve your sleep, stay tuned right here to my Daily Dispatch e-letter and become a subscriber to my monthly Insiders’ Cures newsletter—and I’ll continue reporting on the science.
“Incidence, Persistence, and Remission Rates of Insomnia Over 5 Year.” JAMA Netw Open. 2020;3(11):e2018782. doi.org/10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.18782.