Sleepless Nights Haunt 1 in 4 Americans

Good sleep is hard to come by for the 25 percent of Americans who experience a period of severe insomnia each year, new research suggests.

There was some good news, though: Most who suffer a bout of “acute,”‘ new-onset insomnia will recover and go on to gain restful slumber, the study found.

Tracking more than 1,400 adults nationwide for a year, researchers found that about 75 percent of those who dealt with acute insomnia recovered good sleep within 12 months.

However, 22 percent remained poor sleepers with recurring acute insomnia, and 3 percent developed chronic insomnia.

“These high rates suggest to us that [acute insomnia] is common, if not normal,” said study author Michael Perlis. He directs the behavioral sleep medicine program at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine.

Many factors — including fear, stress, travel or physical pain — can bring about acute insomnia, but “only a few things are thought to extend [it] to poor sleep or chronic insomnia,” added Perlis, who is also an associate professor of psychiatry.

Acute insomnia is defined as difficulty falling or staying asleep for three nights or more per week for between two weeks to three months. Chronic insomnia means the problem occurs at least three nights per week for more than three months.

Perlis and his colleagues recruited 1,435 adults who were classified as good sleepers over the first three months of the study and tracked them on a daily, weekly and monthly basis for a full year. Participants kept a daily sleep diary, and periodic assessments logged their daytime function, stress, life events, and medical and mental health.

The study is believed to be the first providing data on the transition of good sleepers to those who experience acute insomnia, persistent poor sleep, or chronic insomnia.

“I encourage people to take [acute insomnia] in stride and understand that this happens,” said Dr. Nathaniel Watson. He’s a professor of neurology at the University of Washington Medicine Sleep Center in Seattle, and past president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

“Nobody’s a perfect sleeper,” added Watson, who wasn’t involved in the new research.

Both Perlis and Watson advised those dealing with insomnia to let the situation resolve on its own, without overthinking it or trying to compensate.

“The thing that translates acute insomnia to chronic insomnia is what we do about it,” Perlis said. “When you sleep in, nap or go to bed early, you just interfere with the process that initiates sleep and increase the likelihood of having insomnia.

“If you try to fix it, you’re going to break it,” he added. “The best thing you can do is nothing.”

On the other hand, Perlis recommends seeing a doctor if you suddenly have trouble sleeping after being a consistently sound sleeper if no temporary stressors are a factor.

“Usually, sleep is the first thing to start deteriorating when something wicked this way comes, meaning medically or psychiatrically,” he said.

Watson and Perlis also offered tips to promote regular refreshing sleep, including:

  • Maintain a regular bedtime and wake-up schedule.
  • Don’t look at the clock if you wake up in the middle of the night. “It creates a negative thought pattern and can be disruptive,” Watson said.
  • Keep technology out of the bedroom.

The study was presented recently at the Associated Professional Sleep Societies’ annual meeting, in Baltimore. Research presented at scientific conferences typically hasn’t been peer-reviewed and is considered preliminary.

More information

The U.S. National Sleep Foundation offers more on insomnia.