Insomnia & Sleeping Difficulties

Problems falling asleep, awakening after being asleep, and not being able to sleep through the night are all common problems. Insomnia is probably the most common.

What is insomnia?

Insomnia has been defined quite simply as “sleeplessness.” But there is nothing simple about the inconvenience that at some point insomnia causes in many people’s lives. No one is completely certain why humans require sleep, but the fact that sleep deprivation has many serious impacts upon our lives demonstrates its importance.

The amount of sleep that is necessary for individuals varies. It is approximated that most people require 7 hours of sleep each night, with 8% satisfied with 5 hours or less and 4% requiring 10 hours or more. It depends entirely on the individual. It becomes obvious that you are not receiving the amount of sleep your body requires if you begin to experience adverse effects on your life.

What are some of the causes of insomnia and other sleep difficulties?

Although causes may vary from individual to individual, some common causes include:

  • stress and anxiety
  • depression
  • trauma in your life (major or minor);
  • overeating just before bed
  • stimulants in the bloodstream like caffeine and nicotine (e.g., coffee, chocolate, cola and cigarettes)
  • poor diet
  • lack of exercise
  • conditions that don’t encourage sleep (noise or light)
  • concerns about work or school
  • concerns about daily living (money, violence, transportation, job, relationships)
  • illness
  • jet lag
  • decongestants and pain and cold relievers
  • asthma and other breathing disorders

What are the consequences of insomnia and other sleep difficulties?

The symptoms of insomnia can be extremely mild to serious. If symptoms of insomnia are affecting your ability to function effectively you will need to consider seeking help.

Some consequences may include:

  • decreased problem-solving skills
  • decreased concentration
  • lowered mental alertness
  • drowsiness or falling asleep at every opportunity
  • inability to concentrate
  • decrease in efficiency
  • nervousness
  • irritability & anger
  • increased anxiety
  • feeling depressed or down
  • fatigue and lowered physical performance

What can I do to manage insomnia and other sleep difficulties?

Implement routine. Try to go to bed & wake at the same time daily. This helps your body get into a rhythm and makes sleeping feel more natural.

Limit the bed to sleeping. Try not to study, watch TV, read or eat in bed.

Exercise. Do some exercise during the day to induce tiredness.

Relax before bed. Have a warm bath, listen to soothing music, use deep breathing techniques, yoga, tai chi, etc. Learning meditation can be a very useful tool for stilling the mind and relaxing the body.

Avoid naps. Napping during the day may minimize your ability to sleep at night.

Minimize anxiety. Try not to tackle anything that may cause stress & anxiety just before bedtime. Some find it helpful to process the days thoughts and feelings by write down any worries or to making a list of things you need to do the next day.

Avoid stimulants. Avoid having caffeine (coffee, tea, chocolate, cola) or cigarettes before bed. [Note: alcohol may make you drowsy but can disrupt sleeping patterns.]

Warm & soothing drinks. Warm chamomile or peppermint tea or a milk-based (or dairy-free alternative) drink may help you sleep.

Lavender. Lavender is considered a natural sedative, so sprinkling some oil on your pillow may assist.

Therapy. If your insomnia is related to depression, talking to a mental health professional (counselor, therapist, social worker, etc.) can help. Research has found that when people with depression have insomnia, talk therapy can help address the causes behind both issues and bring relief.

Natural remedies. Valerian root is considered a non-addictive, sleep-inducing herb that also assists in relieving stress & anxiety. St John’s Wort is another natural product used to treat anxiety, depression, stress & insomnia. Both are available at supermarkets or your local pharmacy. It is important to remember, however, that neither have scientific evidence that supports that these actually work as intended. It’s always a good idea to check with your medical doctor before trying such substances, especially if you are taking other medications. Some people have found success in taking a melatonin supplement before bed, which has far less drug interactions than other natural remedies due to melatonin already being produced in the body.

Medication. If your inability to sleep is disrupting your life, it is advisable to see your doctor. Your doctor may provide medication to assist in rectifying your disrupted sleeping patterns, but be sure you know about the drug before taking it. Many medications can be addictive & cause periods of drowsiness upon waking, which may cause problems if you require alertness for work or school.

Ambien is a prescription sleep aid that has received a lot of publicity. It comes in two forms—AMBIEN which helps you fall asleep and AMBIEN CR which helps you fall asleep and stay asleep. Each can have serious side effects that can be exacerbated if taken while using alcohol. Side effects can include sleepwalking and eating or driving while not fully awake with memory loss for the event, as well as abnormal behaviors such as being more outgoing or aggressive than normal, confusion, agitation, and hallucinations. If you have depression, it can cause a worsening of depression, including risk of suicide. If your doctor prescribes Ambien in either form, it is important that you discuss possible side effects before beginning the drug.

Other professionals. Your doctor may also treat or refer you to other professionals to address the causes of the insomnia.

For more information on insomnia, check out the Mayo Clinic website.

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