Three years ago, I moved into an awful house share for university and developed insomnia as a result of it. The physical sleeping conditions were your typical brand of dorm: Walls that blocked no sound, uncomfy bed, curtains thinner than a piece of paper, you know the drill. But my sleep problems ran deeper than that. I was in a constant state of anxiety owing to a bad relationship with a fellow housemate and I found it difficult to relax. When I moved back home—to my lovely house with a comfy mattress, black-out blinds, and no nightmare housemates—having had no previous sleep problems, I assumed the issues would simply stop as soon as I hit the hay, but alas; they persisted.
So far, my insomnia has been misdiagnosed as anxiety and depression twice. I've been on the world's longest therapy waiting list, removed myself from the list and tried phone therapy instead, realized how pointless phone therapy is, and filled out more "risk assessment" forms than I've had hot dinners. I've cried countless times at hearing the shrill tone of my iPhone's morning alarm whilst still being awake. I've also tried every "sleep remedy" under the sun, and attempted, desperately, to nap in every room of my house. Yep, that includes the bathroom floor.
Possibly the worst part about insomnia (you know, apart from the not sleeping bit) is how other people view it. It's difficult to gain sympathy for an illness that doesn't directly affect your health but ruins your life in so many minor ways. People who sleep well want to give you advice on how "a cup of hot milk will solve all your problems" or will direct you to an article on an expensive pillow spray.
Even medical advice isn't much better, I've been doubted when I try and convince the doctor the anti-D's aren't doing anything for my sleep. It seems that medical professionals can't seem to separate the two, and don't take insomnia as seriously as they should, as it isn't a typical Mental Health Disorder. Added to this, sleep medication is given out stingily—partly due to it being highly addictive, but also because insomnia is seen as a "temporary issue." But in my case, the temporary issue has become a very permanent part of my life.
Aside from just feeling knackered all the time, insomnia has side effects I wouldn't ever have thought about, had I not experienced it myself:
Weight GainSleep is a necessary part of your digestive cycle, and when you don't sleep, everything slows down. Your brain controls your hunger and fullness hormones (Ghrelin and Leptin), which are impacted by insufficient sleep. When you don't sleep well, your brain produces too much Ghrelin, meaning you feel hungry more of the time, and therefore eat more than necessary.
Sleep deprivation also leads to weight gain in less technical ways; when you're stressed and tired, getting an energy rush from sugary snacks is an appealing short-term fix. Doctify Psychiatrist and sleep expert Dr. Balu explains: "Studies have shown sleep-deprived men preferred high calorific foods and women who slept for less than six hours or more than nine hours gained five kilograms compared to women who slept seven hours." When you're tired, it's also easier to make "bad" food decisions to comfort yourself, and harder to choose something healthy and nourishing over something quick and easy to make.
Lack of sex driveWhen a TV character doesn't want to have sex, their go-to is: "I'm tired". But it runs deeper than just not being bothered, a study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine shows that for every extra hour of sleep a woman receives, she is 14% more likely to want to engage in sexual activity. Dr. Balu says "men who get less than five hours sleep a night for a significant period of time have far less levels of testosterone than those who get a good night's rest. It is well known that low testosterone level reduces the desire for sex. Women who get adequate sleep report better genital arousal and vaginal lubrication which plays a significant role in enjoying satisfactory sex."
Additionally, when you're running on zero hours sleep, it's even harder to feel sexy. When my insomnia was horrific, I would kick my boyfriend out of bed and banish him to the spare room; anything to try to get a better night's rest. And when you sleep in separate beds, it's easy to see how your sex life could easily diminish to nothing.
Short-term memory lossDuring sleep, your brain produces important waves that store memories. So when you don't sleep, it can be hard to even remember what you had for dinner the previous day. Dr. Balu explains how "people suffering from insomnia showed less activity in brain regions involved in working memory, compared to people without the sleep problem." He added: " In addition to not sleeping well at night, people with insomnia have inefficient brains during the day which interferes with their ability to process and retain information."
Plus, many sleep medications make this much worse. At the peak of my insomnia, taking anxiety medication and sleeping pills, I couldn't remember anything past my commute home the previous evening. It's frustrating at best, and scary at worst.
Not feeling rested once you do sleepBecause you're running on a sleep deficit, on the rare occasion you do get a whole eight hours (and when I say rare, I mean once a month if you're lucky), you don't feel rested. In fact, I often feel more tired after I do eventually manage to sleep, because my body suddenly remembers what it's supposed to feel like and craves the sleep it has lost out on. It's a Catch 22 situation.
ParanoiaSleep disturbance has a role in the creation of paranoia. To get technical, studies show that "sleep deprivation contributes to the development of persecutory ideation." Put in less confusing terms, it means when you're tired, you're more likely to imagine things that aren't there. But even if you aren't experiencing full-blown hallucinations, it's easy to imagine how feeling less focused at work due to tiredness could lead you to imagine (or worry) your boss is going to fire you. Or that canceling plans means that all your friends hate you. Dr. Balu confirms this, saying, "even just a few nights of poor or disturbed sleep can muddle thought process, increase the level of stress and make one feel isolated from the world."
Becoming a flaky friendUsually, I'm a planner. If there's a date in my diary, I'll do everything in my power to be there; and my pet hate is when people cancel without a decent amount of warning. But insomnia completely changed my attitude towards activities. I would make plans in advance, but only confirm them on the morning of said plans. If I was still awake at 6 a.m., I'd text friends and family that I wouldn't be able to make it. If I managed to sleep, I wouldn't set an alarm so that I could get maximum rest, leading me to accidentally missing plans entirely. Sleep came first, and social activities had to come last.
Serious health problemsInsomnia can be the symptom of an illness or the catalyst. While lack of sleep often indicates issues elsewhere in the body, it can also just be a health problem in itself. This, in turn, can lead to a whole host of serious health issues. Dr. Balu tells me that "insomnia is often associated with heartburn, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal disorders, kidney disease, neurological disorders, respiratory problems, and thyroid dysfunction. in short, lack of sleep affects all systems of the body."
For sleep issues not connected to mental health problems, Dr. Balu suggests a rigorous sleep hygiene plan. He suggests "a routine of waking up and going to bed at the same time each day, avoiding alcohol and other stimulants, regular exercise, limiting activities in bed, avoiding eating and drinking 90 minutes before going to sleep, and not taking worries to bed".
Personally, the most helpful things I've found on my insomnia journey have been surrounding myself with understanding people, and informing my boss of my sleep issues. If I can't fix my insomnia, it's at least important to not be judged for how it affects me, just as you would expect to be treated with any other disorder.
This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com/uk. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.