Insomnia is an epidemic in the United States. Many people toss and turn all night without the rest that they need. They then spend the next day exhausted and frazzled. However, people with insomnia may actually be getting sleep without knowing it. Many insomniacs, while getting less sleep than ideal, actually drift off and wake throughout the night without realizing that they have slept.
The Mental and Physical Toll of Insomnia
While some people fall asleep almost as soon as their heads hit the pillow, others are not as lucky. Around one-third of adults report struggling with insomnia, which can include difficulty falling asleep, difficulty staying asleep, waking far too early or otherwise not getting enough sleep quality and quantity.
This lack of sleep can have devastating effects. Chronic insomnia is linked to metabolic problems such as diabetes as well as serious diseases like heart disease and cancer. It also can affect our performance and our mental health, causing memory loss, depression and low cognitive function.
There is no debate that insomnia can be mentally and physically debilitating. However, many insomniacs are not going completely without sleep, as they believe. New research has found that many are getting more sleep than they realize due to a phenomenon called sleep misperception.
How can a person believe that they are laying awake all night when they actually are sleeping soundly? New research has several potential explanations for this unexpected nighttime experience.
Could You Be Getting Sleep Without Knowing It?
Many of us have had a sleepless night at least once in our lives. Some people, however, suffer this chronically, or at least think that they do. People with sleep misperception, also known as paradoxical insomnia, truly believe that they are laying awake all night on a regular basis. However, they often do not show the mental and physical effects of these sleepless nights.
When monitored in sleep labs, people with this disorder can be seen to be sleeping. They are lying still with their eyes closed and breathing in a manner consistent with sleep. In addition, EEGs, polysomnography, and other tests show them to have brain activity consistent with sleep. Although some people with this disorder do indeed suffer insomnia to some extent, many of them show sleep behavior similar to people with no sleep disorder at all.
Not all insomniacs have this disorder. In fact, it is relatively rare, affecting less than five percent of people who report insomnia. Some researchers believe that this disorder may be related to anxiety. However, there is another explanation that is beginning to show promise in new studies: many with sleep misperception are somehow still consciously aware of their environments while sleeping. That is, their conscious brain does not shut down when they go through sleep as ours do.
Imagine the surprise of undergoing testing to identify the cause of your insomnia and finding out that you do not have insomnia at all. While this is rare, it must be a shock to those who have sleep misperception. It is important to note that these people are not faking. They indeed believe that they are experiencing laying awake all night even while they are sleeping soundly at the same time.
How to Tell If You Are Getting Enough Sleep
When it comes to sleep, our perception clearly is not always correct. So how can you tell if you are experiencing insomnia or merely having a night of sleep misperception? In general, the following symptoms are common in people who do not get the sleep quality and quantity they need:
- difficulty waking in the morning, requiring very loud alarm clocks and other waking devices
- needing a nap or other sleep period during the day
- feeling more moody or depressed than normal
- requiring caffeine and other stimulants to function normally
- craving carbohydrates and junk food throughout the day
- acting clumsy or having more accidents than normal
If you do not think you are sleeping and you feel exhausted much of the day, you probably indeed are not getting enough rest. However, if you experience staying awake all night yet do not feel fatigued, you may be sleeping without even knowing it. Ultimately, only a sleep study can help you to tell what is causing your insomnia, or whether you have insomnia at all.
The human brain is a mystery in many ways, possibly the least understood organ in our bodies. Sleep is particularly poorly understood, although we know more about this behavior than we ever have before. Ultimately, it is crucial to get enough sleep and to maintain a healthy circadian rhythm, whether you actually remember sleeping or not.