Anyone who’s ever experienced chronic insomnia knows how hellish it can be. The more you can’t sleep, the more you worry about not sleeping, and the worse it gets. It’s a vicious cycle. Your mind refuses to shut down, and after a while, you rarely even feel sleepy anymore, just manic.
During my insomnia years, I remember feeling like my brain was broken. It was so jacked up all the time that I really did think that I could potentially die from sleep deprivation. At the very least, I didn't see how what I was experiencing wasn't causing some major health issues.
But there is some good news about insomnia: It won’t kill you. In fact, there is no scientific evidence that chronic insomnia causes any negative health outcomes at all. (Hard to believe I know.)
Does that mean that insomnia doesn’t have the potential to seriously impact the quality of one’s life? Absolutely not. I know how profoundly challenging it is to go through life in a haze of brain fog and sleep deprivation.
But it will not kill you. (Stay with me, I know how difficult this is to consider while suffering from insomnia.)
Just knowing the difference between a few key words might shift your whole perspective on sleep. Or, at least provide some reassurance that what you're experiencing isn't as detrimental as it feels.
In this blog I talk about why Google searches are so scary. Next, we look at the science and what it ACTUALLY says about chronic insomnia and mortality. Then, I explore a key distinction in the scientific literature. Finally, I address diseases like Fatal Familial Insomnia (FFI), and wrap up with a quick explanation of the negativity bias.
When a life event occurs and sleeplessness results, naturally we go straight to Google to figure things out. I spent what probably amounts to months of my life researching how to get over chronic insomnia.
But here’s the thing about the internet….
It’s positively loaded with scary headlines. They love to bonk us over the head with articles like: "Lack of Sleep Causes Early Death." (Okay, thanks, I'll sleep so much better now.)
Many internet headlines and articles lead people to believe they’re going to suffer a multitude of negative health outcomes as a result of insomnia. Rarely, however, do these articles offer any studies to back up their claims. (Read more on the Google trap.)
That’s because there aren’t any.
There is no evidence that chronic insomnia causes any health problem or specific health condition.
Again, I know this is hard to believe, my friends. So let's take a closer look at a few of the biggest studies on chronic insomnia and certain health outcomes.
This 2019 meta-analysis reviewed the evidence for a relationship between frequent, ongoing insomnia and risk of mortality. All together, the seventeen studies included a whopping 36, 938,981 individuals (yes, that's almost 37 million people!).
Here are the results:
There was no difference in the odds of mortality for those individuals with symptoms of insomnia when compared to those without symptoms of insomnia.
So basically those without insomnia don't live any longer than those with insomnia.
Another 2019 study on sleep duration investigated the association of estimated total daily sleep duration (including naps) with deaths and major cardiovascular events. This study included 116,632 people from 21 countries.
Interestingly, those who slept less than 6 hours a day had a non-significant trend for increased risk of mortality and major cardiovascular events.
However, as sleep duration increased, so did the trend for greater risk of cardiovascular events and mortality.
So... it's actually more sleep that poses a greater risk of mortality and cardiovascular events than less sleep. Go figure!
Why then do the articles out there on chronic insomnia and health outcomes sound so dang convincing?
You could do a quick Google right now and find pages upon pages of headlines that indicate a myriad of health issues related to insomnia. The confusion lies in the wording. Very often, people with various health conditions participate in studies, and while there may be an association with chronic insomnia for those individuals, there is never a cause.
I love the way sleep physician Daniel Erichsen uses ashtrays to explain association versus causation. He says:
Households with ashtrays are linked to greater instances of lung cancer. But ashtrays aren’t the cause of lung cancer, they're simply associated with lung cancer. Similarly, cancer patients often have poor sleep but that doesn't mean poor sleep is the cause of cancer.
Phrases like: "related to," "may cause," "linked to," "associated with," or "has the potential to" do not show causality. They are very convincing words used by major medical authorities to create headlines that capture people's attention. But the truth is, there simply are no randomized studies that show that insomnia causes negative health outcomes.
This doesn't mean it's not possible for insomnia to cause certain health outcomes but so far, with billions of dollars invested in sleep research, direct cause has not been shown.
There are only a few diseases associated with lack of sleep that can be fatal.
If you've ever trekked through Insomnia Land in search of answers, you've probably felt the fear of having Fatal Familial Insomnia (FFI) or Sporadic Fatal Insomnia (SFI).
You are not alone. It’s a very common concern for people experiencing insomnia, I was terrified that I had it for years.
But these are extremely rare, hereditary diseases. Fatal Familial Insomnia affects about 1 out of every million people and there are only around 30 documented cases of Sporadic Familial Insomnia in existence.
What separates these diseases from insomnia is that with FFI and SFI, there is no fear or worry about sleep. Insomnia is the struggle to sleep; however, with neurodegenerative disorders like FFI/ SFI, there is no struggle or wonder about what’s causing sleeplessness.
If you are worried and anxious about sleep, this is an indication that you do not have FFI/SFI.
It’s unfortunate that these conditions use the word 'insomnia' in their label because they really aren’t insomnia's at all. Insomnia occurs as a result of fear and worry, which ultimately leads to hyperarousal in the brain. With FFI and SFI, there is no fear or anxiety about sleep.
Our Negativity Bias
Humans have evolved to respond more strongly to negative events than positive ones. Which is why criticisms often have a greater impact than compliments, and bad news frequently draws more attention than good.
That's the reason we don't see headlines like: "Not Sleeping Doesn't Cause Health Problems." No one would read it!
Plus, the inability to sleep is often compounded by anxiety about the inability to sleep which leads to even greater levels of catastrophizing and hyperarousal in the brain.
It is my hope that just knowing that chronic insomnia will not cause death provides some level of relief. That it gives you some reassurance that you can spend less time worrying about the health effects of insomnia.
I recovered completely from insomnia after 42 years. You can, too.
In kindness 🧡
Beth Kendall MA, FNTP
Holistic Sleep Coach
Health Disclaimer: The information and other content provided in this blog, or in any linked materials, are not intended and should not be construed as medical advice, nor is the information a substitute for professional medical expertise or treatment.
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