Why Black Women Are More Likely To Have Insomnia — And Other Health Issues Because Of It

Ashley Batz / Bustle

Fatigue, an inability to concentrate, and poor memory are just some of the symptoms people with insomnia have to deal with on a daily basis. Insomnia is one of those ailments that is hard to explain the seriousness of to those who don’t suffer from it. It’s more than not being able to fall asleep quickly; insomnia can have long-lasting negative effects on a person’s health by increasing their risk for depression and high blood pressure.

Another thing that may surprise you about sleep-related issues? Insomnia affects Black people much more than white people — even though white people are more likely to be diagnosed with insomnia by a doctor.

A National Sleep Foundation (NSF) poll revealed significant differences in sleep patterns, especially for Black folks who reported getting the least amount of sleep (6 hours and 14 minutes) compared with the white, Asian, and Hispanic people surveyed. Black survey participants reported losing sleep over personal finance concerns (12 percent) and employment concerns (10 percent); while white people only loss sleep over these concerns 6 percent and 7 percent of the time, respectively. Overall one-third of Black survey participants loss sleep due to financial, health, or personal relationship concerns.

"So many people are suffering because of economic uncertainty," Martica Hall, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh told the NSF. "If you find yourself lying awake worrying, write a note to yourself to work on these issues the next day so you can dismiss those ideas at bed time. Consider using relaxation techniques and focus on calming activities and thoughts. If your problems persist, you may want to seek out a sleep professional."

There are many ways to treat insomnia, but cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) works the best. According to Boston University researchers, many healthcare providers aren’t trained in using CBT to treat insomnia despite its proven usefulness. CBT is an effective treatment because, unlike medicine, it treats the underlying causes of the sleep disorder, where medicine can only treat the symptoms like mood disturbance, daytime sleepiness, and low motivation and energy.

Lynn Rosenberg, ScD, associate director of Boston University’s Slone Epidemiology Center and a principal investigator of the Black Women’s Health Study (BWHS), aims to change that statistic among Black women using “a self-administered internet program called SHUTi (Sleep Healthy Using the Internet), a web tool based on cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)." Rosenberg has received a three-year, $2,225,495 grant from the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) to study ways to reduce health disparities for Black women dealing with insomnia.

"This project was selected for PCORI funding not only for its scientific merit and commitment to engaging patients and other stakeholders, but also for its potential to fill an important gap in our health knowledge and give people information to help them weigh the effectiveness of their care options,” said PCORI Executive Director Joe Selby, MD, MPH in a press release.

The SHUTi program has been proven to be effective in improving insomnia symptoms, but it hasn’t been adequately tested in Black populations, particularly Black women. Rosenberg and her team plan to make changes to the SHUTi program to make it more effective for Black women. The study will also compare standard treatment Black women with insomnia receive from a doctor and the SHUTi program to see which one provides better treatment.

“The SHUTi-BW program, if successful, could improve insomnia symptoms among many Black women across the country, which in turn could lower their risk of the many health problems related to poor sleep,” Rosenberg explained in a press release.

If you're having trouble sleeping, you're not alone. Around a third of the U.S. population has had brief insomnia symptoms, and ten percent are suffering from a chronic insomnia disorder, which occurs at least three times per week and persists for at least three months.

Thomas J. Balkin, Ph.D., Chairman of the National Sleep Foundation encourages those suffering from sleep problems to be proactive. "If you are experiencing problems sleeping, take charge of your own sleep," he was quoted in the NSF's sleep report. "You should critically examine your bedtime routines and pre-sleep activities and make time to ensure your bedroom is conducive to your sleep comfort. You will spend approximately a third of your life in bed, so it's worth it to take time to make sure your bed and bedtime routine are right for you. If you continue having problems sleeping for more than a few weeks, it's advisable to speak with your health care professional."

Results from this study will be available more than three years from now, but its findings have the potential to change the way insomnia is treated in marginalized groups. Insomnia, like many other disorders, doesn't have a "one size fits all" treatment, so studying how to properly treat different ethnic groups is a step in the right direction.