What you can do about insomnia

Woman with Insomnia

Don’t watch the clock if you have insomnia.

As a sleep medicine physician, I know first hand that insomnia troubles many people.

Insomnia is a sleep disorder in which a person is having difficulty falling sleep, maintaining sleep or waking up too early in the morning, despite having adequate time to sleep while in an environment that is conducive to sleep. Typically, if it takes you longer than 30 minutes to fall asleep, you’re awake more than 30 minutes a night, or you wake up 30 minutes earlier than you would want to, chances are that you have insomnia.

There are things you can do on your own to sleep better—or, we hope, eliminate your insomnia altogether. 

What you can do to eliminate insomnia

Adopt better sleep “hygiene” or sleep habits:

  • Establish a regular wake time.
  • Develop a nighttime routine.
  • Avoid naps during the day.
  • Avoid large meals before bed. These may trigger gastroesophageal reflex disorder (GERD).
  • Exercise regularly, preferably not within several hours before bed.
  • Avoid activities that would raise your core body temperature before bed, such as hot showers, saunas or late evening exercise.
  • Avoid electronic devices before bed. The light exposure from smart phones, smart tablets, televisions and computers put out a fair amount of light that may trick the body into thinking it’s not nighttime.
  • Minimize caffeine. Avoiding drinking it after noon.
  • Avoid nicotine, which is a stimulant.
  • Avoid alcohol before bed.
  • Avoid using your bedroom for activities other than sleep or sex. Your bedroom is not a good place for a home office, for example, because your brain will associate the room with work instead of sleep.
  • Don’t watch the clock. This often leads to frustration about sleeping, which makes it harder to sleep.
  • Maintain a positive attitude. Negative thoughts about sleeping often lead to frustration, which creates a vicious cycle.

The myth about sleep and alcohol

Many people think that having a glass of wine before bed will enhance sleep. Alcohol does make it easier to fall asleep, but the sleep is generally not good quality sleep. Alcohol can worsen breathing in sleep or cause obstructive or central sleep apnea. It can disrupt sleep architecture and change where dreaming sleep occurs in the night. And it can also act as a diuretic, causing someone to get up to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night.

When you’re having a bad night

If you haven’t been able to fall asleep after it feels like 20 or 30 minutes, leave the bedroom and do something quiet in a dimly lit room. Read a book or do stretches. Wait until you’re sleepy, return to your bed and try to fall asleep again.

What causes insomnia?

Most people experience insomnia sometime in their life. Insomnia can be caused by pain, a reaction to stress or an exciting event, depression and anxiety, medical conditions such as restless leg syndrome, or a change of work schedule such as shift work. Drugs such as decongestants, antidepressants, steroids or stimulant medications can lead to insomnia.

When to see a physician about insomnia

Insomnia can be acute (less than 3 months in duration) or chronic (more than 3 months in duration).

If your symptoms have persisted and really bother you, seek help from your primary care physician or get a referral to a sleep medicine physician. Particularly seek help from a health care professional if you are experiencing symptoms that may often be associated with insomnia, such as trouble with thinking, alertness, tiredness, irritability, or mood disturbance.

Next steps

Mark GarwoodMark D. Garwood, M.D., is a sleep medicine physician and Assistant Professor, Neurology. He completed his medical degree at Loyola University of Chicago, his residency in neurology at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, and a fellowship in sleep medicine at the University of Michigan. He is committed to helping his patients overcome their sleep disorders.



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