In today’s fast-paced world, it can be difficult to find time for all the important things one must do in a day. Perhaps that’s why so many of those activities are shifting to night — not only cutting into time for sleep but also our ability to do so.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, more than half of all men and women in the United States experience at least one symptom of insomnia a few nights a week, and it’s a trend that’s wreaking havoc on our minds and bodies.
Symptoms and causes
Symptoms of insomnia include difficulty falling asleep, waking during the night, waking too early or waking feeling tired. This poor sleep can lead to decreased energy, impaired memory and poor judgment. It can also decrease overall health and immune system functioning and increase blood pressure and physical pain, along with stress, anxiety and irritability. Some research has observed that 90 percent of depressed patient show evidence of disrupted sleep.
The causes can range from poor ventilation in your bedroom to physical disorders such as sleep apnea. For most people, however, the solutions are simple and center on developing good sleep hygiene — habits that help maintain health and prevent disease.
Good sleep hygiene
Good sleep hygiene requires attention not only to your routines, but also your sleep environment and diet.
Oftentimes to end insomnia, you need to develop new behavioral patterns. Helpful behaviors include establishing a regular time to go to bed and get up (sticking to it even on weekends until your insomnia resolves), avoiding naps and engaging in relaxing activities before bedtime.
Many people are surprised to learn that just like watching TV before bedtime, reading is also a bad idea. Both activities activate an area of the brain that must be relaxed for sleep. Consider instead a hot bath, meditation or a relaxing form of yoga, such as Hatha.
If you can’t fall asleep within 15 to 20 minutes, get up and try a mellow activity for a short time, then try again.
During the day, be sure to exercise — especially if you work in an office all day. Fifteen minutes of daily exercise can help you relax more easily at night and sleep longer.
Consider whether anything in your bedroom may be contributing to sleep disruptions. Is it full of distractions, such as a home office or a stack of work awaiting your attention? Is it well ventilated and a comfortable temperature for sleeping?
As much as possible, reserve your bedroom for sleep. That will help program your body to begin unwinding when you enter.
If you obsess about the time, move your clock so it’s accessible but not easily viewed. If you worry about waking your partner, try sleeping alone while you break the insomnia cycle.
Caffeine and nicotine both contribute to sleep loss and are best avoided during the three to four hours preceding sleep. Also avoid drugs and alcohol. Both carry the potential for dependency and both are known to diminish the quality of sleep.
Many people find it helpful to eat a light snack before dinner. A small but balanced combination of proteins and carbohydrates can help you sleep better and longer.
When to seek help for insomnia
If after adapting good sleep hygiene, you continue to struggle with insomnia, it may be wise to seek outside help. Your family physician can rule out any physical problems or illnesses that may be causing the problem, while a therapist can help you work through the emotional stressors that make it difficult to sleep.