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Sweet Dreams (And Good Sleep) Are Made of These: Understanding Insomnia and Its Treatment

Sleep, an indispensable component of our daily lives, is far more than just a break between the days.

Key takeaways

  • Understanding sleep involves duration, quality, and regularity.
  • Sleep affects mood and cognition, and poor sleep worsens mental health issues like anxiety and depression.
  • Insomnia impacts daily life and has diverse causes.

Posted on 9 Apr 2024

Written by
Dr Jared Ng, Connections MindHealth

Sleep, an indispensable component of our daily lives, is far more than just a break between the days. It’s a critical factor in maintaining both our physical and mental well-being. The quality of our slumber significantly shapes our psychological state, highlighting its importance in our overall health equation [1].

In this article, we’ll attempt to uncover the true essence of quality sleep, recognising its subjective nature and how it evolves over time. Our exploration includes understanding how sleep affects mental health and tackling the challenge of insomnia, a common disruptor of this delicate balance. Lastly, we’ll discuss various treatment strategies for managing insomnia, aiming to restore harmony in our sleep and mental health.

sleep importance
Quality sleep significantly shapes our psychological well-being.
Exploring the Essentials of Quality Sleep

Quality sleep is a cornerstone of health, encompassing three critical dimensions: duration, quality, and regularity. Duration refers to the amount of sleep, typically recommended as seven to nine hours for adults, though this varies individually [2]. The quality aspect focuses on how restful and uninterrupted the sleep is, factoring in deep and REM sleep stages [3]. Regularity pertains to maintaining consistent sleep and wake times, which is crucial for synchronising our body’s internal clock with our daily routines [4].

The sleep requirements of individuals vary significantly. Babies, for instance, need more sleep than adults [5], while older adults often experience more disrupted sleep patterns [6]. Our sleep needs also evolve as we age, reflecting the dynamic nature of sleep across our lifespan. How many of us remember our younger days when we could stay up all night chatting with friends, playing video games, and studying without issues the following day? I, for one, can no longer stay awake to watch a football match.

Several factors play a role in shaping our unique sleep needs. Age, as mentioned, is a significant determinant, as sleep patterns naturally shift over the lifetime. Lifestyle habits such as diet [7], exercise [8], and daily routines [9] exert a significant impact on sleep quality. Stress levels [10], too, can influence sleep, either by inducing excessive tiredness or causing insomnia. Moreover, physical and mental health conditions can markedly alter sleep patterns.

Recognising and understanding these variances is vital for achieving optimal sleep. It’s not merely about the quantity of sleep but also about establishing a sleep schedule that caters to our requirements and gracefully adapts to life’s changing phases.

poor sleep quality
Stress and mental health conditions can negatively impact sleep quality.
The Relationship Between Sleep and Mental Health

The intricate link between sleep and mental health is a multifaceted, bidirectional interaction [11]. Adequate sleep can energise our days, while a deficiency can lead to exhaustion. Sleep plays a pivotal role in facets of mental health, such as mood regulation [12] and cognitive acuity [13]. During deep sleep, our brains engage in essential functions like processing emotions, consolidating memories, and rejuvenating for the mental rigours of the following day.

Poor sleep can adversely affect our thoughts and mood, while mental health conditions like anxiety and depression can disturb our sleep patterns, leading to restlessness and unsatisfactory rest. Anxiety might cause sleeplessness with an overactive mind, and depression can either induce early morning awakenings or excessive sleeping.

Emerging research underscores that enhancing sleep quality can positively impact mental health [14] . Addressing sleep issues not only assists with sleep-related disorders but also ameliorates mental health problems. Improved sleep quality and duration have been associated with reduced anxiety, mood fluctuations, and depressive symptoms. The role of sleep in mental health care is gaining recognition, suggesting the promise of sleep enhancement as a strategy for bolstering psychological health [15].

By prioritising quality sleep, we can bolster our daily functioning and approach life’s challenges with a more focused mind and a lighter emotional burden.

enhanced sleep quality
Enhancing sleep quality can bolster an individual’s resilience to depression.
What Exactly is Insomnia?

Insomnia encompasses more than difficulty falling asleep; it also includes struggles initiating sleep, maintaining sleep, or experiencing premature awakenings. To be classified as chronic insomnia, these sleep disruptions must occur at least thrice a week for a minimum of three months.

The diagnosis of insomnia also hinges on its impact on daily functioning, including impairments in job performance, cognitive abilities, and the person’s “emotional equilibrium”. These stringent criteria mean that sleep difficulties are not merely fleeting but are persistent issues. Insomnia continues even when adequate time for sleep is available and is not attributable to other physical or mental health conditions, sleep disorders, or substance use.

The chronic nature of insomnia means that its impact extends beyond the night, permeating every facet of daily life. Acknowledging the gravity of insomnia necessitates a holistic treatment approach to restore not just sleep but the overall health equilibrium that sleep underpins.

chronic insomnia singapore
Chronic insomnia is a persistent issue that affects an individual’s overall health equilibrium.
The Many Causes of Sleeplessness

To gain a better understanding of insomnia, it’s crucial to delve deeper into the many factors that can disrupt sleep — these range from lifestyle and environmental conditions to health and mental well-being.

  • Social Factors: The clash between modern lifestyles and natural sleep patterns is stark. For instance, shift workers, especially those on night shifts, often struggle with disrupted circadian rhythms [16]. The demand to stay connected through smartphones and social media well into the night can lead to irregular sleep patterns [17]. Furthermore, the phenomenon of “Revenge Bedtime Procrastination” is increasingly common [18]. This occurs when individuals, feeling short-changed by their busy daytime schedules, delay sleep to indulge in activities like binge-watching dramas, gaming, or scrolling through social media, thus cutting into essential sleep time.
  • Environmental Factors: Our sleep environment plays a critical role. Noise, such as traffic, neighbours, or even a partner’s snoring, can significantly disrupt sleep [19]. Screens at bedtime [20], particularly electronic devices emitting blue light, can suppress the production of melatonin, the hormone responsible for sleep regulation. Additionally, an uncomfortable mattress or a room that’s too hot or cold can prevent us from falling or staying asleep.
  • Health-Related Factors: Sleep can be affected by various health issues. Chronic, painful conditions, like arthritis or fibromyalgia, can make it challenging to find a pain-free sleeping position. Respiratory conditions like asthma can cause night-time awakenings due to breathing difficulties. Gastro-oesophageal reflux disease (GERD) can lead to discomfort and awakenings. Conditions like an enlarged prostate or diabetes can increase night-time urination, leading to fragmented sleep.
blue light melatonin
Revenge bedtime procrastination is a common cause of poor sleep quality.
  • Mental Health Factors: The link between sleep and mental health is profound [21]. Stress, particularly from work or personal issues, can keep the mind too active for sleep. Anxiety disorders can lead to a cycle of sleeplessness and worry about not sleeping, exacerbating the problem. Depression can disrupt sleep patterns, leading to insomnia or hypersomnia (excessive sleepiness). The relationship is bidirectional, as poor sleep can also exacerbate mental health issues.
  • Primary Sleep Disorders: Sleep disorders themselves are sometimes the culprits of sleeplessness. Restless legs syndrome, characterised by uncomfortable sensations in the legs and an irresistible urge to move them, particularly at night, can impede the transition to deep sleep. Additionally, disorders like narcolepsy, which involve sudden and uncontrollable episodes of falling asleep during the day, can disrupt night-time sleep patterns and result in excessive daytime sleepiness. Parasomnias like sleepwalking, night terrors, and REM sleep behaviour disorder all of which can lead to frequent awakenings and disturbed sleep.

By understanding these complex and interrelated factors, we can better approach the treatment of sleeplessness. Tailoring interventions to address specific causes, whether lifestyle adjustments, environmental changes, health interventions, or mental health support, is key to improving sleep and overall well-being.

Approaches to Treating Insomnia

Comprehensive evaluation, including medical and psychiatric assessments, is essential in treating insomnia, as it can often be a symptom of underlying conditions. As we saw in the section above, it’s important not to hastily attribute insomnia solely to stress without considering other potential causes. 

Identifying and addressing any underlying health issues, be they physical or mental, is crucial, as they can significantly impact the effectiveness of insomnia treatments. This comprehensive approach ensures that both the symptoms and the root causes of insomnia are addressed, leading to more effective and sustainable solutions.

Once a thorough evaluation has uncovered any underlying physical or psychiatric conditions contributing to the sleep problem, a tailored treatment plan can be formulated. This plan may involve different doctors (e.g. psychiatrists, ENT surgeons, cardiologists, neurologists, etc.) depending on the underlying condition, as well as psychiatrists, psychologists, and counsellors. Treatment options often comprise a blend of non-pharmacological and pharmacological strategies, each playing a distinct role in the journey towards restorative sleep. 

  • Non-Pharmacological Treatments
    • Sleep Diary: A critical step in addressing insomnia is maintaining a sleep diary [22] . This log records sleep and wake times, sleep quality, and possible sleep disruptors. Analysing these entries can reveal patterns or behaviours contributing to insomnia, guiding the development of targeted treatment strategies.
    • Sleep Hygiene: Enhancing sleep hygiene involves adopting practices and creating an environment conducive to better sleep [23]. Key measures include establishing a consistent sleep schedule, ensuring a quiet and comfortable sleep environment, reducing screen exposure before bedtime, and avoiding stimulants like caffeine in the evening. These adjustments can significantly improve sleep quality.
    • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I): CBT-I is a structured, evidence-based approach that addresses the cognitive and behavioural aspects contributing to insomnia. It involves techniques to modify sleep-inhibiting thoughts and behaviours, fostering sleep-promoting habits. CBT-I has demonstrated effectiveness in providing long-term improvement in sleep quality [24].
sleep log singapore
Sleep diaries are effective in improving sleep quality.
  • Pharmacological Treatments
    • Supplements (Melatonin): Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone that regulates the sleep-wake cycle. Supplemental oral melatonin can be particularly useful for people with irregular sleep schedules, such as shift workers or those experiencing jet lag. It aids in synchronising the body’s internal clock, facilitating earlier sleep onset. Unlike many sleep medications, melatonin does not typically induce dependency or diminish in effectiveness over time.
    • Benzodiazepines (BZDs): These medications enhance the effect of GABA, a neurotransmitter that promotes calmness and relaxation. Short-acting benzodiazepines are effective in helping individuals fall asleep more quickly, addressing sleep initiation problems. Longer-acting versions maintain their effect throughout the night, aiding in sleep maintenance. However, they can cause dependency and have side effects like next-day drowsiness and cognitive impairment, especially in the elderly.
    • Non-Benzodiazepine Hypnotics (Z-Hypnotics): Z-drugs, like Zolpidem and Zopiclone, are designed to have fewer side effects than benzodiazepines while still being effective at reducing the time it takes to fall asleep. They work on the same GABA receptors but are more selective in their action, potentially leading to fewer next-day effects. However, there are still risks of dependency and other side effects, and their long-term safety is a topic of ongoing research.
    • Lemborexant: A newer class of medication, Lemborexant acts on the orexin neurotransmitter system, which plays a crucial role in regulating the sleep-wake cycle. By inhibiting the activity of orexin, Lemborexant facilitates the onset of sleep and helps maintain continuous sleep throughout the night. It’s seen as a promising option due to its different mechanism of action and potentially lower risk of dependency and abuse compared to traditional sleep medications.
    • Others (e.g., Antihistamines): Antihistamines like Chlorpheniramine (Piriton) and Hydroxyzine (Atarax) are commonly used for the short-term management of insomnia. They work by blocking histamine receptors, which can lead to drowsiness. While they can be effective for occasional sleeplessness, they are not recommended for long-term use due to side effects like next-day grogginess, dry mouth, and potential for tolerance with prolonged use.
sleeping pills singapore
Medications are effective in treating insomnia.

Each medication category offers different benefits and risks, and their suitability varies based on individual health profiles and specific insomnia characteristics. It’s essential for patients to consult their doctors to determine the most appropriate treatment for their particular situation.

In Closing

In conclusion, understanding and treating insomnia is a complex but vital endeavour for maintaining overall health and well-being. Quality sleep is not a luxury but a necessity for physical and mental health. With its multifaceted causes and wide-ranging impacts, insomnia requires a comprehensive approach that addresses both its symptoms and underlying factors. 

Non-pharmacological treatments like sleep hygiene, sleep diaries, and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I) play a crucial role in managing this condition. Pharmacological options, including supplements like melatonin, benzodiazepines, non-benzodiazepine hypnotics, newer medications like Lemborexant, and even over-the-counter antihistamines, offer additional tools, albeit with careful consideration of their benefits and risks. Ultimately, the path to better sleep and improved overall health lies in a personalised approach, combining various strategies and professional guidance to restore the natural balance and rejuvenating power of sleep.


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