With the exception of a dodgy, nightmare-riddled 45 minutes around 2:00 AM this morning, I spent last night awake.  Completely.  Utterly.  Awake.

I had many thoughts during that time.  One of them was, “This sucks.”  Another was, “I keep forgetting to try that stuffed meatball recipe!”  Yet a third was, “I wonder if unusually high levels of cortisol in my bloodstream could account for this current and otherwise inexplicable wakefulness?”

If you guessed that the latter wasn’t really one of my thoughts, you win.  But it was first thing I found this morning around five, when I finally gave up on staring at the ceiling and turned on the computer to Google “insomnia.”

Courtesy of the Mayo Clinic, insomnia is “a disorder that can make it hard to fall asleep, hard to stay asleep, or both. With insomnia, you usually awaken feeling unrefreshed, which takes a toll on your ability to function during the day. Insomnia can sap not only your energy level and mood but also your health, work performance and quality of life.”  Good times.

Cortisol, I discovered, is a stress hormone often found in the blood of chronic insomniacs, according to an in-depth New York Times report on sleep difficulty.  (Naturally the study then goes on to say that this might be a result, not a cause, of chronic sleep difficulty, as some people apparently find never sleeping really stressful.)

Other causes range from low melatonin, anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder, medical conditions like restless leg syndrome and asthma, some medications, and overuse of caffeine, nicotine, alcohol and – believe it or not – cocaine.  (So a word to those of you who use cocaine: just don’t overuse it.)

None of these is really a problem for me.  I’m not on medications, I don’t use substances, and if I have any emotional or physical conditions I am unaware of them.  I guess I’m not sure about my melatonin levels, since I haven’t had them checked recently, but I assume they are generally fine since I almost always sleep like a baby.

In other words, I have no idea what happened last night.  I can’t account for this incident, and those that have come before it, in any obvious way.  Which, once you start reading about insomnia, is pretty terrifying.  Take for instance the development of psychophysiologic insomnia, also from the Times study, which “occurs when:

  • An episode of transient insomnia disrupts the person's circadian rhythm.
  • The patient begins to associate the bed not with rest and relaxation but with a struggle to sleep. A pattern of sleep failure emerges.
  • Over time, this event repeats, and bedtime becomes a source of anxiety. Once in bed, the patient broods over the inability to sleep, the consequences of sleep loss, and the lack of mental control. All attempts to sleep fail.”

It goes downhill from there.  But I am a problem solver.  So instead of fixating on how jacked my circadian rhythm is now, I decided to concentrate on cures.  Given my lack of obvious symptoms, I can only assume the problem lies in a lack of what PubMed Health calls good “sleep hygiene.”

In an effort to clean up my act, I will no longer watch television or work on the computer for half an hour before bedtime.  I will use the bedroom only for relaxing activities, like sleep, reading and sex. (Nice, yes, but relaxing?) I will avoid daytime naps, and eating or exercising too close to bedtime.  I will endeavor to “keep comfortable sleeping conditions.”



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