Feeling sleepy? You’re not alone. According to the CDC, on any given day, as many as one in five adults suffers from an insufficient amount of sleep! Insomnia affects adolescents, adults, and the elderly. And as we age, sleep can become even more elusive, so developing good sleep habits when you’re younger can pay off later in life.
What Is Insomnia?
Many people think the term “insomnia” refers to a complete lack of sleep. In truth, insomnia encompasses a host of sleep problems, including:
Difficulty falling asleep
Waking up in the middle of the night
Early morning awakening
Depending on your situation, the diagnosis of insomnia and the search for its cause may include:
Physical exam. If the cause of insomnia is unknown, your doctor may do a physical exam to look for signs of medical problems that may be related to insomnia. Occasionally, a blood test may be done to check for thyroid problems or other conditions that may be associated with poor sleep.
Sleep habits review. In addition to asking you sleep-related questions, your doctor may have you complete a questionnaire to determine your sleep-wake pattern and your level of daytime sleepiness. You may also be asked to keep a sleep diary for a couple of weeks.
Sleep study. If the cause of your insomnia isn't clear, or you have signs of another sleep disorder, such as sleep apnea or restless legs syndrome, you may need to spend a night at a sleep center. Tests are done to monitor and record a variety of body activities while you sleep, including brain waves, breathing, heartbeat, eye movements, and body movements.
How to Relieve Insomnia Without Medication
Don’t Be a Hero: The Negative Effects of Insomnia
Ever heard someone brag that he or she only needs six hours of sleep? While it’s admirable to try to put a positive spin on a negative situation, taking a heroic attitude toward sleeplessness can be bad for your health.
Most people need between seven and nine hours of sleep. Getting insufficient sleep can:
Cause fatigue, irritability, and excessive daytime sleepiness
Cause weight gain and make it difficult to lose weight
Weaken the immune system, making you more susceptible to getting sick
Cause elevated blood pressure and can increase the risk of diabetes and heart disease
Contribute to chronic pain
Exacerbate mental illness, including depression and anxiety
Reduce focus and concentration, leading to decreased performance at work
Decrease motor function, making driving hazardous
Techniques for Relieving Insomnia without Medication
Meds can be good for some things. And certainly, some natural or herbal sleep products may help you get some rest. But prescription pills for sleeping aren’t always the best solution.
Unfortunately, some sleep medications can actually make the problem worse. Sleep aids frequently disrupt sleep cycles, causing less restorative sleep. Even if they help you sleep through the night, the sleep is not necessarily deep or restful. People can become dependent on these meds, requiring them to sleep, and many develop a tolerance to sleep meds over time, requiring more medication to get the same effect. These meds can also cause rebound insomnia, meaning it becomes even harder to fall asleep without the medication.
So before you pop that pill for your sleep problems, try these methods instead: 1. Sleep Hygiene 2. Brief Cognitive Behavioral Treatment Intervention for Insomnia (also called “CBT-I”), which will be covered in part two of this series on insomnia.
What Is Sleep Hygiene?
Sleep hygiene is a collection of habits that can help you fall asleep more easily and sleep more deeply. You can develop good sleep hygiene on your own.
Sleep Hygiene: Do’s & Don’ts
Stick to a regular sleep schedule (same bedtime and wake-up time), seven days a week.
Exercise at least 30 minutes per day on most days of the week. Restrict vigorous exercise to the morning or afternoon. A more relaxing exercise, like this yoga, poses to help you sleep, can be done before bed.
Get plenty of natural light exposure during the day. Open your blinds first thing in the morning and get outside during the day. You can even try using a lightbox first thing in the morning during dark winter days to help your brain wake up and regulate your body’s rhythms.
Establish a regular, relaxing bedtime routine.
Take a warm bath or shower before bed.
Do relaxation exercises before bed, including mindful breathing and progressive muscle relaxation.
Make sure your sleep environment is pleasant and relaxing. Your bed should be comfortable, and your room shouldn’t be too hot, too cold, or too bright. If necessary, use earplugs and an eyemask. Be sure your pillow is comfortable.
Associate your bed with sleep and sex only. Don’t work, eat or watch TV in bed.
Go to bed when sleepy, and get out of bed if you’re tossing and turning.
Turn your clock around so you can’t see the time.
Turn off the alert for texts and emails on your phone.
Keep a “worry journal.” If something’s on your mind as you’re trying to fall asleep, write it down on a pad of paper so you can revisit it the next day.
If you’re unable to fall asleep after about 20 minutes, leave bed and do something relaxing (like reading); return to bed later.
Download free screen-dimming software for your computer. Two popular programs are f.lux and Dimmer. These nifty programs help you avoid the stimulation of bright light if you’re using your computer late at night. Better yet: Put the computer away an hour before bedtime!
Don’t ingest caffeine afternoon. This includes coffee, tea, iced tea, energy drinks, and soda.
Don’t have that second glass of wine with dinner. While alcohol is known to speed the onset of sleep, it also disrupts sleep–especially causing arousal during the second half of the night, when the body should be entering deep sleep.
Don’t take other stimulants close to bedtime, including chocolate, nicotine, and certain medications.
Don’t eat a large, heavy meal close to bedtime.
Don’t watch TV, use the computer or spend long periods on a mobile device before bed. These activities stimulate the brain and make it harder to fall asleep.
Don’t use your phone, laptop, or other mobile devices in bed.
Don’t give in to the urge to nap during the day; it can disturb the normal sleep/wakefulness pattern.
If Sleep Hygiene Isn’t Enough
Sleep hygiene alone is often enough to get you sleeping better. The tricky part is maintaining your good sleep habits–it can be hard to have the self-discipline to stick with good sleep hygiene.
If you’ve diligently applied good sleep habits and still find you’re not sleeping well on a regular basis, it might be time to think about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia or CBT-I.
Tips to beat insomnia
Keep regular sleep hours
Going to bed and getting up at roughly the same time every day will program your body to sleep better. Choose a time when you're likely to feel tired and sleepy.
Create a restful sleeping environment
Your bedroom should be a peaceful place for rest and sleep. Temperature, lighting, and noise should be controlled so that your bedroom environment helps you to fall (and stay) asleep.
If you have a pet that sleeps in the room with you, consider moving it somewhere else if it often disturbs you in the night.
Make sure your bed is comfortable
It's difficult to get restful sleep on a mattress that's too soft or too hard, or a bed that's too small or old.
Moderate exercise on a regular basis, such as swimming or walking, can help relieve some of the tension built up over the day. But make sure you do not do vigorous exercise, such as running or the gym, too close to bedtime, as it may keep you awake.
Cut down on caffeine
Cut down on the caffeine in tea, coffee, energy drinks, or colas, especially in the evening. Caffeine interferes with the process of falling asleep and also prevents deep sleep. Instead, have a warm, milky drink or herbal tea.
Do not over-indulge
Too much food or alcohol, especially late at night, can interrupt your sleep patterns. Alcohol may help you to fall asleep initially, but it will disrupt your sleep later on in the night.
Do not smoke
Nicotine is a stimulant. People who smoke take longer to fall asleep, wake up more frequently, and often have more disrupted sleep.
Try to relax before going to bed
Have a warm bath, listen to quiet music, or do some gentle yoga to relax your mind and body. Your GP may be able to recommend a helpful relaxation CD.
Write away with your worries
If you tend to lie in bed thinking about everything you have to do tomorrow, set aside time before bedtime to make plans for the next day. The aim is to avoid doing these things when you're in bed, trying to sleep.
If you cannot sleep, get up
If you cannot sleep, do not lie there worrying about it. Get up and do something you find relaxing until you feel sleepy again, then go back to bed.
Make an appointment to see your GP if lack of sleep is persistent and it's affecting your daily life.