Insomniacs Suffer Depression, Heart Woes After Years of Little Sleep

VIDEO: Dr. Shelby Harris on how shift work can affect your health.
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Editor's Note: The original published text of this story began with an anecdote about a man who claimed to suffer from insomnia. ABC News has deleted that portion of the text after learning that the subject was not who he represented himself to be, leading to concerns about the truthfulness of his statements.

Regularly shortchanging yourself on sleep might be more dangerous than you think, researchers say.

Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder, according to an article published Thursday in the journal Lancet. But it often goes unrecognized and untreated. Doctors say it's an alarming trend because of increasing evidence that untreated insomnia causes other health problems and can lead people to rely on sleep aids that don't work.

Almost everyone has trouble falling asleep, staying asleep or feeling well-rested after sleeping at some point. But these occasional frustrations become insomnia when they happen for days or weeks at a time, according to the National Institutes of Health. Insomnia that lasts for a month or more is chronic.

Studies have shown that 6 to 10 percent of adults meet the criteria for an insomnia disorder. But many people deal with sleepless nights and exhausted days for years at a time.

Charles Morin, a professor of psychology at Université Laval in Quebec City, Canada, and an author of the Lancet editorial, said that is a concern because untreated insomnia can create bigger health problems for the sleepless.

"Sometimes insomnia is a symptom of something else, like depression or hypertension," Morin said. "But it can also be a cause of the problem. It can go in both directions."

People with insomnia were five times as likely to develop depression or anxiety and more than twice as likely to have congestive heart failure, according to a U.S. National Health Interview Survey in 2002.

Stopping insomnia in its early stages would be the key to preventing these health problems from developing. But psychologists say many people don't recognize insomnia as a health problem.

"Most people won't go to their physicians right away for insomnia. They go to the drug store instead," Morin said.

Pharmacy shelves are full of pills that people use to get some shut-eye: cold and allergy medicines (the drowsy kind); synthetic versions of the body's sleep hormone, melatonin; even some anti-depressants. The problem with these drugs is that there's little evidence that actually stop chronic insomnia. Prescription sleep aids, like Ambien or Lunesta, are effective but are not intended to treat years of sleeplessness.

"Generally, the way medications are recommended is for short-term use," said Philip Gehrman, clinical director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at the University of Pennsylvania. "If you need to travel and you know you won't sleep well or you're going to have a stressful month at work, that's an appropriate use. That's short-term."

Gehrman said primary care doctors are often reluctant to prescribe sleep aids to their patients, leading many to simply not ask about their patients' sleep habits and problems at all.

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