You’ve probably been there: You’re lying in bed, in the dark, physically tired. Maybe you have a big day tomorrow, lots to do. And the more you think about needing to fall asleep, the less likely it seems you’ll doze off any time soon.
For many of us, occasional bouts with insomnia seem more of an annoyance than a health threat. But for others, insomnia can lead to depression, social difficulties or poor job performance. Even more sobering: Experts estimate that sleep deprivation may account for as many as 1,500 fatalities and up to 200,000 car accidents in the U.S. each year.
Roughly 60 million Americans experience insomnia. Insomnia is classified as a sleep disorder that occurs when you struggle for more than a half hour to fall asleep or when you wake up in the middle of the night or early morning, unable to get back to sleep. Short-term insomnia can last anywhere from a few days to three weeks. Insomnia that lasts for longer periods is considered chronic. Remarkably, some people with insomnia average only 15 to 20 hours of sleep a week. But whether your insomnia lasts a few days or longer, your quality of life can suffer greatly. Even a short-term sleep deficit can affect your well-being, cause you to feel irritable and lead to relationship problems with friends, family and coworkers.
People lose sleep for several reasons, but many sleep experts consider stress to be the top cause of short-term insomnia. Pressures at work or school or problems with spouses or family members can keep you awake at night. A serious illness in the family, the recent death of a loved one and general depression can contribute to sleepless nights.
Physical factors may be to blame. Pain from arthritis, backache or other discomforts can make it a challenge to sleep peacefully. Hormonal changes during pregnancy, menopause or the menstrual cycle can keep you up at night.
Other culprits include noise, too much caffeine and keeping irregular hours. Shift workers and travelers who frequently cross time zones can have trouble battling biological rhythms to get a good night’s sleep.
The best way to treat insomnia is to address what’s causing it. Here are some simple lifestyle adjustments that can help:Keep regular sleep hours. Hit the sack at the same time every night and wake up at the same time every morning.Establish a pre-bedtime ritual. Take a warm, relaxing bath. Put on pajamas or a nightgown, brush your teeth and wash your face. Try reading or listening to soft music on the couch before going to bed.Avoid stimulants such as coffee, caffeinated beverages and nicotine.Avoid alcohol, which can rob you of deep sleep.Get regular exercise, which can help you sleep more soundly—but don’t work out within three hours of bedtime.Keep nighttime snacks small. Large meals right before bed can keep you up.Curb your fluid intake late in the day if you have problems getting back to sleep after using the bathroom.Avoid napping after 3 p.m.Make your room conducive to a good night’s sleep. Keep it comfortably cool, dark and quiet.Use your bed for sleeping and intimacy only. Keep checkbooks, laptops and work out of bed. And make your bed as inviting as possible—toss the books, magazines or kids’ toys.Write down your worries after dinnertime in a “worry book.” Close the book and resolve to put your troubles aside until the next morning.Jot down a to-do list before bedtime to keep your mind from racing when your head hits the pillow.Get out of bed if you can’t fall asleep within 20 minutes. If possible, go into another room. Read or engage in a quiet activity. Think twice about turning on the TV, which can keep you awake. Go back to bed when you’re sleepy.
If, despite your best efforts, you still have problems sleeping, see your doctor. He or she may ask you to keep a sleep diary, where you can keep track of your sleep habits to help pinpoint the cause of your problem.
Over-the-counter sleep aids are available, but these often contain antihistamines, which may cause prolonged drowsiness or negative interactions with other medications you’re taking. Talk to your doctor before trying them. Herbal remedies and supplements, such as valerian root, often brewed into a tea, and melatonin, a hormone thought to aid sleep, are also available. But beware: These substances are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and can cause undesirable side effects. Again, get guidance from your doctor.
You may want to ask your doctor about prescription alternatives, called hypnotics, that have been approved for treating insomnia. Discuss with your doctor possible side effects such as morning grogginess, headaches and memory problems. Be sure to follow your doctor’s instructions when stopping the medication.
Before insomnia ruins your evenings and days, ask for help—because getting a good night’s sleep shouldn’t be a nightmare.