An Insomnia Epidemic

When it comes to sleep, the worst dreams are often the ones you don’t experience. While many people face occasional sleepless nights due to stress or other common factors, there’s a group of individuals dealing with a different kind of sleeplessness – one that stems from rare and often perplexing medical conditions.

Within the realm of sleep disorders, there’s a particularly unsettling category known as prion diseases. These conditions, affecting both humans and animals, come with a host of frightening symptoms. Memory loss, decreased IQ, personality and behavioral changes, and, most notably, sleeplessness, are all potential side effects of these disorders. Prion diseases attack the nervous system, inhibiting vital brain functioning. The root cause is a mutation in the PRNP gene, typically inherited from a parent.

The Pioneers of Prion Diseases

Among humans, five prion diseases are recognized: Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, Gerstmann-Straussler-Scheinker Syndrome, Kuru, and Fatal Familial Insomnia (FFI). While the term “Mad Cow Disease” is more familiar, it’s just one of the six prion diseases affecting animals. For instance, Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, or “Mad Cow Disease,” is a well-known variant.

The history of prion diseases traces back centuries. Scrapie, a condition affecting sheep and goats, was first observed in Great Britain in the 1730s. It resulted in irritability, weight loss, and clumsiness among the affected animals, sometimes decimating entire flocks. Interestingly, before the mid-20th century, scrapie was confined to Western Europe. However, it reached the shores of the United States when a farmer imported sheep from England. Today, only Australia and New Zealand can claim to be completely scrapie-free.

One of the most unsettling prion diseases is Fatal Familial Insomnia (FFI). It arises due to a mutation in the PRNP gene, causing proteins to aggregate in the thalamus, leading to the destruction of brain cells. The thalamus plays a vital role in sensory processing, motor planning, and maintaining wakefulness and sleep. Consequently, individuals with FFI find it challenging to initiate and maintain sleep. When they do manage to sleep, it often results in extraordinarily vivid dreams. EEGs reveal REM sleep patterns even when the patient is awake, effectively trapping them in a dreamlike state.

One of the perplexing aspects of FFI is that symptoms typically emerge in one’s 40s and 50s. The reason why the gene lies dormant and doesn’t trigger changes until middle age remains unknown. Some experts speculate that the vulnerability of the brain during this period may play a role in the onset of symptoms.

The first recorded instance of Fatal Familial Insomnia dates back to 1765, documented by a physician from Venice, Italy. Initially attributed to an “organic defect of the heart’s sack,” the symptoms closely align with FFI, including “paralysis” and extended periods without sleep. This Italian family’s struggle with the rare genetic illness spanned over 200 years, a story chronicled in the book “The Family That Couldn’t Sleep.”

FFI has left its mark on individuals like Michael Corke, a music instructor in Chicago, who began experiencing sleep difficulties in 1991. His mental and physical health deteriorated, leading to an incorrect diagnosis of major depression. Eventually, physicians induced a coma, and six months after his symptoms first appeared, Corke passed away. His story was featured in the BBC documentary “The Man Who Never Slept.” Similarly, Thai Ngoc from Vietnam claimed he hadn’t slept for 31 years after falling ill in 1973. Some view him as evidence that FFI may not always end tragically, while others argue that he experiences “micro-naps” but is unaware of them.

Stress and Anxiety Are Silent Culprits

One of the leading culprits behind insomnia is stress and anxiety. Life events that induce significant stress, such as job changes, the loss of a loved one, divorce, or even moving, can disrupt your sleep patterns. When your mind is preoccupied with worries and uncertainties, it becomes challenging to achieve the restorative rest your body craves.

Environmental Influences

The environment in which you sleep plays a crucial role in your ability to doze off peacefully. Factors like noise, excessive light, or uncomfortable temperatures can create hurdles on your path to slumber. Ensuring that your sleep environment is conducive to rest is essential for tackling insomnia.

The Impact of Habits

Your daily habits and choices can significantly impact your sleep quality. Avoiding or limiting caffeine and alcohol, refraining from nicotine use, and steering clear of large meals and beverages before bedtime are essential steps to foster better sleep. Additionally, the timing and frequency of naps can influence your ability to fall asleep at night.

How to Address Insomnia

Understanding the root causes of insomnia is just the first step. To address this issue and improve your sleep quality, consider the following strategies:

  1. Maintain a consistent bedtime and wake time, even on weekends, to regulate your body’s internal clock.
  2. Engage in regular physical activity to promote better sleep, but avoid intense workouts close to bedtime.
  3. Some medications may disrupt sleep patterns. Consult your healthcare provider to discuss potential alternatives.
  4. Establish a calming pre-sleep routine to signal to your body that it’s time to wind down.
  5. Make sure your bedroom is comfortable, dark, and quiet, enhancing your chances of uninterrupted sleep.
  6. Explore stress-reduction techniques such as meditation, deep breathing exercises, or yoga to alleviate anxiety that can disrupt your sleep.

Useful Apps To Help You With Your Insomnia

Sleep Cycle

Sleep Cycle is a top-rated app designed to monitor and analyze your sleep patterns. By placing your smartphone on your nightstand, the app uses advanced algorithms to detect your movements and sounds throughout the night. It provides detailed insights into your sleep quality, helping you understand the factors that may be causing your sleepless nights. With Sleep Cycle, you can work on improving your sleep habits and waking up feeling refreshed.

 Relax Melodies

Relax Melodies offers a wide range of soothing sounds and white noise to create a calming atmosphere for sleep. Whether it’s the gentle rustle of leaves, ocean waves, or the ambiance of a coffee shop, this app allows you to customize your perfect sleep soundtrack. You can mix and match sounds to drown out disturbances and lull yourself into a peaceful slumber, making it ideal for those struggling with environmental factors that disrupt sleep.


Headspace isn’t just a meditation app; it’s a valuable resource for improving your sleep quality. With its sleep-specific content, you can access guided meditation sessions and mindfulness exercises tailored to help you relax and unwind before bedtime. By managing stress and anxiety, you can alleviate one of the primary causes of insomnia. Headspace’s sleepcasts and sleep music are additional features to explore for a restful night’s sleep.

Sleep Time

Sleep Time is a comprehensive sleep app that goes beyond tracking your sleep patterns. It acts as a sleep cycle calculator, helping you determine the optimal times to go to bed and wake up to align with your body’s natural rhythms. By understanding your sleep cycles, you can wake up during a lighter sleep stage, reducing grogginess and fatigue. Sleep Time provides personalized recommendations to improve your sleep routine.


Noisli is a versatile app that allows you to create custom soundscapes for relaxation and focus. While it’s not exclusively a sleep app, it can be a powerful tool for crafting the perfect environment for rest. Choose from a variety of ambient sounds like rain, thunderstorms, forest streams, and more to mask disruptive noises and promote relaxation. Noisli also offers a color generator feature, which can be soothing for visual relaxation.

Statistics On People Who Cant Sleep

  • Insomnia is a widespread sleep disorder that affects people across the globe. According to recent statistics, approximately 10% to 30% of adults experience insomnia symptoms at some point in their lives. This staggering prevalence underscores the significance of addressing sleep-related issues on a global scale.
  • Research reveals intriguing gender disparities when it comes to insomnia. Women tend to be more likely than men to experience insomnia symptoms. Studies indicate that around 40% of women and 30% of men report occasional insomnia, shedding light on the unique challenges faced by individuals of different genders.
  • Insomnia is closely linked to mental health concerns. Approximately 50% to 80% of individuals with depression experience insomnia, and the numbers are similarly high for anxiety disorders. Understanding this connection is crucial for addressing the holistic well-being of individuals struggling with sleep disorders.
  • Age plays a significant role in sleep patterns. Insomnia prevalence varies across different age groups. For example, it’s estimated that up to 50% of older adults experience insomnia symptoms, while the rate is lower among younger individuals. Examining these age-related trends provides insights into the evolving nature of sleep disorders.
  • Beyond its impact on individuals’ health, insomnia also carries a substantial economic burden. Studies show that the annual cost of insomnia-related productivity loss and healthcare utilization in the United States alone exceeds $100 billion.

Insomnia may have multifaceted causes, ranging from stress and environmental factors to lifestyle choices. Recognizing these triggers and implementing strategies to address them can pave the way for more restful nights.

Prioritizing sleep is essential for your overall well-being, as sleep deficiency is linked to various chronic health problems and a higher risk of injury.