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When sleep is elusive, worry sets in
One in 10 people battles chronic insomnia

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Date published: 3/16/2008

BY MARCIA ARMSTRONG

Sleep came easily to me until I went to college.

Then, one semester, as I agonized over assignments and grades, slumber wasn't so simple anymore.

Instead of being swept blissfully into sleepyland every night, I tossed and turned. The hands of my nightstand clock circled the dial with excruciating slowness.

2:12. 2:25. 3:02.

As the night wore on--and on and on--panic set in. How was I going to make it to all my classes the next day, much less take coherent notes? Would there be enough time for a nap?

Was I going to have insomnia again tomorrow night? What about the night after that? If so, when would it ever end?

INSIDIOUS FATIGUE

According to the National Institutes of Health, one in three adults experiences occasional insomnia. One in 10 grapples with chronic bouts of the sleep malady.

Insomnia symptoms may include difficulty falling asleep at night, waking up during the night and waking up too early. Symptoms also include daytime sleepiness, fatigue and irritability, the Mayo Clinic says.

Short-term insomnia, often caused by a stressful life event, disappears after the event is over. The more dangerous chronic insomnia packs the potential to cause heart disease, hypertension and diabetes, said Kevin Handley, psychology professor at Germanna Community College.

It can also trigger depression, anxiety and mood swings.

"It even increases the risk of suicide attempts for some people," Handley said.

Another potentially fatal consequence of insomnia is driving while drowsy.

"The lack of sleep is insidious," Handley said. "You don't realize that your concentration is waning."

CAUSE FOR CONCERN

There are almost as many causes of insomnia as there are minutes of sleep lost to it:

stimulants, stress and sleep apnea

hormonal changes and bad bedtime habits

depression and anxiety.

The incidence of insomnia increases with age, but people of any age can have it.

A lack of light also can throw the body's internal sleep clock out of sync, causing sleep disturbances, especially for commuters.

"In our community, people get up at ridiculously early hours to commute, then come back home when it's dark," Handley said.


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BEYOND COUNTING SHEEP

Can't sleep? Try these strategies from Dr. Maha Alattar, a neurologist and sleep specialist at Mary Washington Hospital's Sleep and Wake Disorders Center:

Exercise, but stop three to four hours before bedtime.

Take a warm bath or shower, or immerse your feet in warm water, two to three hours before bedtime.

Read something relaxing, or listen to soothing music.

Darken the room.

Stay away from your computer.

If you watch TV, stick to lighthearted shows.