dont-knowRecently I was telling a new acquaintance about my book.

“Insomnia?” she said. “How do you define that? My problem is that I wake up several times every night. Does that qualify as insomnia?”

“That depends,” I replied, and then I rattled off the medical definition of insomnia: trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep, awakening too early, or nonrestorative sleep; and distress or impairment in key areas of functioning during the day. “Do you feel impaired during the daytime?”

“I have a lousy memory,” she said. Then she launched into a litany of lost remembrances: trips taken, family gatherings, books read. The relationship of sleep and memory is a hot topic these days and she was curious: did her longstanding memory problems and frequent wake-ups mean she was suffering from insomnia? (And if she could get rid of the wake-ups, would her memory improve?)

First Impressions

A good diagnostician or sleep specialist would interview her further before reaching a conclusion; I am neither of these things and don’t pretend to be.

Yet my impression was that—whether or not her symptoms would meet the medical definition of insomnia—she didn’t have a lot to worry about. This woman owns a successful business with stable roots in the community where she lives, and she’s endowed with a vibrant personality, fabulous communication skills, and energy to burn.

Most insomniacs I know present a different picture and tell a different story. Asked about their daytime symptoms, and they talk about everything from fatigue and exhaustion to moodiness and brains that limp along in second gear. Memory impairment, too, is a common complaint, and it’s certainly one of mine.

More Information

Appearances can be deceiving, yet my sense was that if this woman would be given a diagnosis of insomnia, she had a rather mild case. She confirmed this a minute later when she told me what she does when she wakes up at night. “I roll over,” she said, “and I fall right back to sleep.”

I felt a sharp stab of envy: what wouldn’t any red-blooded insomniac give, when we wake up at 2 or 3 a.m., to be able to roll over and fall right back to sleep?

I kept the thought to myself, though, and made a suggestion about how she might improve her sleep. And about this, I’m a believer: no matter the shape and size of a sleep problem, there are probably ways to make it better.

But the memory issue? There’s a question scientists may be working to answer for a long, long time.

What kind of insomnia do you have, and do you experience any negative effects during the day?

Posted by Lois Maharg, The Savvy Insomniac

Lois Maharg has worked with language for many years. She taught ESL, coauthored two textbooks, and then became a reporter, writing about health, education, government, Latino affairs, and food. Her lifelong struggle with insomnia and interest in investigative reporting motivated her to write a book, The Savvy Insomniac: A Personal Journey through Science to Better Sleep. She now freelances as an editor and copy writer at On the Mark Editing.

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