Did you know that we spend approximately one-third of our lives either sleeping or attempting to sleep? Sleep is an essential physiological process that tremendously impacts how we live, function, and performs during the other two-thirds of our existence.
According to the National Sleep Foundation,¹ consistently sleeping six to eight hours per night is optimal for good health. But due to insomnia and other sleep disorders, six to eight hours of sleep is not always possible. And if you sleep for substantially less than the recommended time, your physical and mental health can suffer.
People with insomnia have difficulty initiating or maintaining sleep. Even if you fall asleep, you may still wake up feeling tired and unrefreshed. This lack of sleep can impact your physical and mental well-being and, subsequently, your ability to work.
This begs the question, is insomnia a disability?
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If you are one of the tens of millions of people who struggle with insomnia in the US, then you know first-hand how difficult this condition can be. It feels like your lack of sleep is debilitating. But is insomnia considered a disability?
Despite substantial evidence that insomnia can significantly impact various aspects of human functioning, it is still not classified as a disability in many parts of the world. Here in the United States, the Social Security Administration does not list insomnia alone as a disability.
Before we dive into why insomnia is not classified as a disability, let's look at the definition of 'disability' to understand what qualifies as one. According to the CDC, a disability is:
Any physical or mental condition that makes it difficult for a person to perform any substantial gainful activity or interact with the world around them.
Disability is a multidimensional experience for the person involved. According to the International Classification of Functioning, Disability, and Health (ICF), WHO's a framework for measuring health and disability, disability has three dimensions:
Impairment. Significant difference — or lack thereof — in body function or mental functioning. Impairments may include loss of a limb, memory loss, loss of vision, etc.
Activity Limitation. Difficulty performing or executing a task or action such as walking, hearing, seeing, and problem-solving.
Participation Restriction. Difficulty getting involved in daily activities such as work, social and recreational activities, etc.
Insomnia may impair mental function, limit activity, and restrict participation. In other words, individuals who have insomnia may experience difficulties performing tasks and engaging in social roles. So, strictly by definition, insomnia may be classified as a disability.
Insomnia is not classified as a disability because it's often a symptom of another condition. If your lack of restful sleep stems from illness, injury, or a mental health condition such as anxiety, depression, or chronic stress, you may qualify for disability benefits.
Whether you qualify for disability benefits or not, difficulty initiating or maintaining sleep will leave you:
Irritable, anxious, and depressed
Feeling tired or low energy throughout the day
Experiencing memory problems or difficulty concentrating
Struggling with work, school, or relationships.
Insomnia is often a side effect of another condition. Understanding the root cause of your inability to fall or stay asleep may be crucial to your disability claim. Many physical and mental conditions can cause insomnia, including:
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer's disease
Certain medications can also cause insomnia as a side effect. Talk to a sleep medicine specialist — a psychiatrist, neurologist, or other doctors with extra training to treat sleep problems — to get an accurate diagnosis. If your insomnia is affecting your ability to perform work tasks, a sleep medicine specialist may be able to support your claim for disability benefits.
Insomnia can affect your overall health and well-being in a wide range of ways. Chronic sleep deprivation puts your physical and mental health at serious risk. For many people, the lack of sleep produces an array of devastating health consequences that may include:
Cognitive and intellectual impairment
Current and subsequent affective disorders — also known as mood disorders — such as depression and bipolar disorder
Reduced immune function.
What’s more, people with chronic insomnia often report a significant decline in quality of life and diminished coping abilities. Over time, lack of sleep can lead to health problems such as weight gain, hypertension, and diabetes.
Just like food and water, the right quantity of sleep is necessary to survive. There's a good reason we spend one-third of our lives sleeping! Insomnia can make it difficult to get restful sleep.
Although the condition can impact your ability to work, insomnia alone is not classified as a disability. Nonetheless, you must talk to a specialist to help you deal with insomnia and find the treatment that works best for you.
How much sleep do we really need? | Sleep Foundation
Disability and health overview | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Mood disorders | Johns Hopkins Medicine