Just about everyone has a sleepless night occasionally. Most of us make it through the day with a yawn here or there, and sleep fine the next evening. But for more than 45 million Americans, insomnia and other sleep disorders are ongoing problems, severe enough to interfere with everyday life.
By far, the most common sleep problem in every age group is insomnia. You may have trouble falling asleep, or find yourself waking up during the night, unable to get back to sleep.
“For many of us, insomnia is transient, which means it lasts only a day or two, or happens just occasionally,” according to John Cronin, MD, medical director of Scripps Clinic Viterbi Family Sleep Center and Scripps Clinic pulmonologist. “Transient insomnia is usually triggered by stress; for example, worry about problems at home or work.”
For about 10 percent of insomniacs, though, sleeplessness is a chronic problem with serious consequences. “People with chronic insomnia may be irritable or impatient. They may have short-term memory problems or find it difficult to concentrate, which can lead to serious consequences such as traffic accidents or household injuries,” says Dr. Cronin. “In fact, research has found that driving while drowsy may be nearly as dangerous as driving while intoxicated.”
Dr. Cronin cautions against the use of prescription or over-the-counter medication and supplements. “Sleep aids may have a role for short term bouts of insomnia, but long-term treatment typically centers around cognitive behavioral therapy and lifestyle modificaitions,” says Dr. Cronin. “Many medications have long term side effects and can lead to the possibility of dependency with subsequent withdrawal insomnia, so I discourage my patients from using them in the long run.”
Fortunately, insomnia can almost always be resolved. If you find yourself lying awake at night, talk to your doctor. Simple changes in diet, work schedule or daily routines often resolve the problem.
Sometimes, people simply need to re-learn how to sleep well. If you have problems falling or staying asleep, try these tips:
The best sleep is regularly scheduled. A routine bedtime and get-up time are important. If you vary your sleep and wake times on the weekends or throughout the week, your body will find it harder to adjust.
Limit electronics usage 30–60 minutes before bed. The light emitted by phones and other devices can inhibit melatonin production.
Napping can make sleep problems worse. If you’re a napper who has difficulty sleeping at night, try eliminating that daytime nap. In children, naps should be discontinued as soon as they are no longer necessary.
Avoid caffeine and alcohol. Chocolate, soda, coffee, tea, alcoholic beverages and some pain medications can disrupt your sleep. Even if you can fall asleep right after a cappuccino, your sleep is likely to be lighter and less satisfying.
Exercise regularly. Daily exercise is part of the prescription for insomnia. If possible, try to exercise in the morning. Some people may find that exercising late in the day interferes with sleep.
Use your bed and bedroom only for sleeping. Teach your body to associate the bedroom with sleeping, not watching television or doing work.
If you can’t sleep, don’t lie in bed tossing and turning. Get up, have a cup of herbal tea or warm milk, read or do something else. Go back to bed when you feel sleepy.
Healthy Life is brought to you by the physicians and staff of Scripps Health. For more information, or for a physician referral, visit www.scripps.org or call 1-800-Scripps.