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Matthew Walker, Why We Sleep

Matthew Walker, one of the world’s leading experts in sleep and a professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, is of course describing the superpower of a good night’s rest. Unfortunately, over 30% of adults in the U.S. suffer from insomnia and this has serious health consequences.

What is insomnia?

In order to understand insomnia, we must first recognize that insomnia doesn’t always mean not sleeping enough. In fact, 50% of people with clinical insomnia sleep more than 6 hours a night on average. Do you take more than 30 minutes to fall asleep? Do you wake up multiple times during the night and find it impossible to fall back asleep? Or do you wake up feeling exhausted, irritable, and unable to focus in the morning, even though you slept for 8 hours? If any or the above is true, you may have insomnia.

Clinical insomnia can be acute (short-term) or chronic (at least 3 nights a week for 3 months or more). According to Spielman’s 3 P’s Model, there are 3 sets of factors contributing to insomnia: predisposing, precipitating, and perpetuating factors.

  • Predisposing factors are contributors that increase our baseline risk for developing insomnia. They are often outside our control, and are associated with genetics and other pre-existing conditions. The good news is predisposing factors are usually not sufficient to cause insomnia on their own.

  • Precipitating factors are the triggers for the first few sleepless nights. They are typically short-term stressors such as catching a flu or having a bad day at work. More serious stressors include traumatic events or developing a serious medical condition. You might expect sleep to recover to normal once precipitating factors are resolved, but this is not the case for chronic insomnia.

  • Perpetuating factors are the reasons why a few nights of poor sleep turn into months (and even years) of sleeplessness. The habits that we develop to cope with insomnia in the short-term end up messing with our sleep in the longer-term.

You can take our quiz to learn more about your sleep problems and get a personalized sleep report.

Adverse effects of insomnia

Sleep is the single most powerful mechanism given to us by Mother Nature to consolidate memories, enhance learning, flush harmful toxins from our brain, regulate emotions and reset our physical health each day, and not sleeping well jeopardizes all of that. For instance, did you know that routinely getting poor sleep destroys your immune system and doubles your risk of getting cancer, heart attack and stroke, and also significantly increases your chance of getting Alzheimer’s disease? Or that lack of sleep affects the body the same way as getting drunk, impairing your alertness and making it harder to exercise self-control?

Insomnia lowers your productivity and job performance, causes cognitive decline, affects your physical health, increases your risk of mental health disorders, and decreases your general well-being.

We won’t be unable to do justice to the decades of sleep research on the adverse effects of insomnia in one article. If you’re interested to learn more, we recommend the book Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker.

If there is one thing you should take away from this section, it will be that people who suffer from insomnia are often painfully unaware of how disruptive it is to their everyday lives; they have gotten so used to getting poor sleep that they have forgotten what life was like before. Decades of sleep research has proven that people who are sleep-deprived consistently underestimate how sleep-deprived they are. If you suffer from insomnia, don’t just live with it or wait it out. Do yourself a favor and seek help today.

Insomnia treatment

It is important to treat insomnia as early as possible, because the symptoms typically worsens over time and becomes harder to resolve if left untreated.

While it is tempting to resort to sleeping pills for a “quick-fix”, you might want to think twice because these often have adverse side effects and dependency risks. More importantly, they do not address perpetuating factors (remember Spielman’s 3 P’s Model from before) and are ineffective in the long term. Your body develops resistance to these drugs very quickly.

Fortunately, there are behavioral interventions such as CBT-I, which address both precipitating and perpetuating factors and are clinically proven to be way more effective than medication. This is why the American College of Physicians and the American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends CBT-I as the first line of treatment for insomnia patients.

This concludes part 1 of the deep dive series on The Science behind Insomnia and CBT-I. Part 2 of this series explains how CBT-I works and presents the supporting clinical evidence. Part 3 describes how Slumber One combines digital CBT-I with content personalization and relaxation exercises, to create what is probably the most effective treatment for insomnia that is available (and we have the data to back this up). Keep reading to learn more!

Next: How does CBT-I works? »

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