One of the cruel ironies that often accompanies insomnia is that the harder you try to sleep, the lesser chance you have of actually getting to sleep. It's a mind trick on yourself, not a welcome one at that. That is the conundrum faced by many wannabe sleepers who toss and turn late into the night, counting sheep or performing certain prescribed breathing exercises, only to turn over and gaze at the glowing bedside clock for the umpteenth time. Maybe it says you now have been in bed for more than two hours, and you are certain you haven't slept a wink (or if you have, you don't believe it).
Two Types of InsomniaThere is short-term insomnia as well as chronic (long-term) insomnia, per webmd.com. Short-term insomnia could simply be the result of travel across multiple time zones or temporary stress. The former is improved once your body adjusts to the new time zone; the latter remedied once the source of the stress – perhaps an important meeting with your boss regarding your annual review or the trip-expenses report you just filed (ugh)– has been removed. Chronic insomnia, by comparison, is defined as sleep that has been consistently disrupted for extended periods of time, such as weeks, months, or even years. Such a sleep problem calls for a physical exam administered by your physician and/or some combination of new lifestyle habits, medical treatment, and/or psychotherapy with the intent of identifying a hidden cause.
What Constitutes Insomnia?So it's now well past midnight, two or three hours since you crawled into bed, and you're lying there, wide awake, looking around the room because you are having trouble sleeping. Maybe it was that cup of caffeinated coffee or that thriller of a movie you watched an hour or so after dinner (your chance to chill out), but now you can't stop thinking about it, remembering plot details along the way. Worse yet, this goes on night after night. Even in the middle of the night, your mind is hard at work. It's official: you have chronic insomnia. You are not alone. Many people have insomnia. Acute insomnia sounds bad, but it is defined as short-term insomnia. Chronic insomnia is defined as that which lasts four weeks or longer. Symptoms of insomnia, per familydoctor.org, typically include lying awake for a long time before falling asleep, an inability to stay asleep, waking up very early, feeling like you haven't gotten any sleep . . . at all, and falling asleep during the day, and this includes while driving. Obviously, it's a health issue that can lead to serious consequences. Such a consistent lack of sleep also puts you at higher risk of health issues such as high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes. Most adults need seven to eight hours of sleep a night, per familydoctor.org; you know you're getting enough if you don't feel sleepy during the day. Plus, your sleep patterns might change as you grow older, with older adults tending to sleep less at night and taking naps during the day.
Causes of InsomniaMany health conditions that can be at the root of insomnia, not all of them physical. Per familydoctor.org, these include emotional states (depression, anxiety, etc.); neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer's disease; persistent pain from conditions such as arthritis; gastrointestinal issues (such as heartburn); and sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome. Other contributing factors can be medicines you're taking for such things as allergies or colds, or high blood pressure. If your doctor believes you have an actual sleep disorder, such as apnea, he or she might order a sleep study for you.
Treatments for When You Have Trouble SleepingBefore starting any treatment program if you are having trouble sleeping, especially if it involves medication, be sure to discuss it first with your doctor. Here are some treatments and strategies to look into:
- Prescription sleeping pills. OK, let's get right to it. Beware that most if not all prescription sleeping pills have side effects, per helpguide.org. These can include prolonged drowsiness the next day, constipation, muscle aches, and dizziness. Sleep medications can also be addicting. What sort of trade-off are you willing to make?
- Establish better sleep habits. These involve lifestyle changes such as going to bed at the same time every night; turning off the TV or getting off the computer at least a couple hours before bedtime; laying off the caffeine, tobacco products, and alcohol, totally, after 6 p.m.; exercising for 30 minutes in late afternoon or early evening, such as walking or jogging; and making a list of things you need to do or deal with the next day and getting it down on paper 30 minutes after dinner – it helps you clear your mind or at least compartmentalize stuff so you can focus on your sweet sleep. All that stuff/junk will still be there for you the next day.
- Relaxation techniques. These can include breathing exercises, per webmd.com, that involve controlled, timed inhales and exhales, usually though your mouth, as well as holding your breath for a few seconds in between (we're NOT talking like how long you can hold your breath underwater type stuff). There are also muscle-relaxation exercises you can do. Discuss first with your doctor.
- Over-the-counter (OTC) remedies. These can include nutritional supplements known to help with sleep, without the side effects.