Conquering Insomnia: 10 Tips for Better Sleep
Struggling to fall asleep or find yourself waking up multiple times throughout the night?
These are typical symptoms of insomnia, a sleep disorder that refers to difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. This happens to almost everyone sometimes, but you can be diagnosed with insomnia if the problem has persisted over a significant period of time and is now affecting your daytime activities.
Insomnia can lead to sleep deprivation and keep you foggy or disoriented throughout the day, making it harder to stay awake at school, at work and even behind the wheel.
According to pulmonologist and sleep medicine physician Bhavna Sharma, MD, sometimes speaking to a specialist is needed to figure out what could be causing these issues and how to fix them.
Insomnia is divided into two types: acute or chronic. While acute insomnia is short term and persists for less than three months, chronic insomnia lasts for longer than three months, with patients complaining of difficulty sleeping at least three nights a week.
“Insomnia may become more prevalent as people get older, especially in women,” Dr. Sharma says. Insomnia can get worse around menopause, she says, because symptoms can interfere with sleep.
“Most of the time, insomnia is a symptom of other things going on in the mind and body, ” Dr. Sharma says. “Stressors like unresolved anxiety or depression, other sleep disorders, grief over a lost job or loved one, and sometimes medications can contribute to the development of insomnia.”
If you have had trouble sleeping for several months, it’s best to see a doctor to find out what’s causing the problem. If not taken care of early on, acute insomnia can lead to chronic insomnia.
If you seek medical attention, you can expect a detailed interview about potential causes and your sleep habits, such as whether you maintain regular sleeping and waking hours.
10 Ways to Improve Sleep
Dr. Sharma suggests these tips for maintaining good “sleep hygiene”:
Maintain a regular sleep and wake cycle. No matter what your schedule looks like, aim to go to bed at the same time or a similar time every night. Waking up around the same time every morning will also help tell your brain when it’s time for you to be asleep.
Create a comfortable atmosphere for yourself, before bedtime. Sometimes a warm bath in the evening or meditating can be exactly what you need to enter a sleepy headspace.
Avoid screens at night. Blue light can interfere with the production of the hormone melatonin, which helps the body to regulate the sleep-wake cycle. Interrupting this internal clock can keep your brain alert, making it harder to fall asleep.
Embrace sunlight. Exposure to sunlight helps to keep the mind awake and sets the circadian rhythm of the body’s natural clock, so basking in it during the day can really help to shake off any leftover drowsiness.
Take a power nap. Although it’s best to get a full night’s sleep, sometimes a nap is exactly what you need to keep your head up. If that’s the case, take a nap no longer than 20 to 25 minutes and, if possible, before 2 p.m. Longer or later sleep can leave you restless at night and, at times, even make it harder to fall asleep at night.
Avoid caffeine in the evening. Coffee, tea or even cola drinks can delay fatigue and keep you awake far beyond your regular bedtime hours.
Don’t lie in bed wide awake. If you can’t fall back to sleep within 15 to 20 mins, leave the bed and engage in a quiet activity like reading a book in dim light. Avoid turning on the TV or a cell phone, and return to bed as soon as your eyes start feeling heavy.
Reserve your bed for sleep and sex. Don’t watch movies or scroll through your phone in bed. Keep your bed a safe space for when you need it.
Get regular exercise. Physical activity helps to keep your mind and body in shape. But try not to engage in a vigorous workout regime within two hours before bedtime, unless that’s the only time you can squeeze it in.
Consider trying melatonin. This over-the-counter sleep aid, which contains a synthetic version of a natural hormone, may be helpful for short-term or occasional use. Melatonin can help initiate or maintain sleep but doesn’t work for everyone. Talk with your doctor about the right dose, and seek professional help if you are using over-the-counter medications often.
When to See a Doctor
If you’re struggling to sleep, consider seeking professional advice. If you visit a sleep specialist, the doctor may ask you to keep a detailed sleep diary to show the patterns of when you’re sleeping and awake.
You’ll discuss your medications and any stressors that may be interfering with a good night’s sleep. You may be asked to spend a night in a sleep lab to check on sleep patterns and look for sleep disorders such as sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome.
Dr. Sharma notes that cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBTI), one of the main treatments, has proven to be helpful in the long term.
According to the Sleep Foundation, CBTI “focuses on exploring the connection between the way we think, the things we do, and how we sleep.” Specialists work on identifying any thoughts and behaviors that may contribute to insomnia so that they can work around personal challenges and improve sleep.
If your insomnia persists and you’re looking for professional help, schedule an appointment with an Einstein sleep specialist and find out how you can get a better night’s sleep.
As Dr. Sharma says, “sleep is really important to a good quality of life. Don’t underestimate it.”