More Than a Sleepless Night
There’s more to insomnia than just trouble falling asleep. Some people fall asleep just fine but wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep. Others sleep through the night but wake too early in the morning. And still others appear to sleep through the night with no problem, but never wake rested.
While it’s normal to experience an occasional bad night of sleep, if your sleep problems become chronic, it’s time to do something about them. Lack of sleep interferes with immune function and increases your risk of insulin resistance. Then there are the dangers of trying to get through the day (especially if you have to drive) when you’re overtired.
Various health issues may contribute to sleep problems, including menopause, depression (early morning awakening is a common sign of depression), and just about any condition that causes pain. Other culprits include restless legs syndrome and sleep apnea, in which you slightly awaken dozens of times a night because your breathing stops.
Just as important as the ability to fall asleep and stay asleep is the ability to cycle in an orderly fashion through the five stages of sleep several times a night. This is critical to cell growth and repair and a strong immune system. If something (for instance, alcohol, heavy smoking, or abnormally hot or cold bedroom temperatures) interrupts the progression of these sleep stages, you won’t feel well rested and your immune system, mood, and memory may suffer.
Not being able to sleep can be extremely frustrating. But before you turn to sleeping pills, there are plenty of natural approaches to try.
Prevention and Tips
Maintain a normal weight. Studies find that obesity can make sleep problems like sleep apnea worse. It can also affect important sleep-related hormone levels in the body, increasing levels of the stress hormone cortisol while decreasing levels of sleep-inducing melatonin.
Manage stress. Do it however you can, whether it’s yoga classes or meditation. Check your medications. Many prescription and over-the-counter medications can interfere with sleep, including beta-blockers, thyroid medication, certain antidepressants like the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), decongestants, corticosteroids, and medications with caffeine. Talk to your doctor about changing dosages or medication if you’re taking any of these drugs.
Avoid alcohol. Although many people think a glass of wine before bed can help with insomnia, the opposite is actually true. While alcohol might help you fall asleep, it’s often the culprit behind middle-of-the-night awakenings as your body experiences alcohol withdrawal. It also interferes with your sleep cycle, so even if you do sleep through the night, you’ll wake up tired.
Stop smoking. Yet another reason to quit: Nicotine is a stimulant. If you’re still smoking, try not to smoke for at least two hours before bedtime (brush your teeth so you won’t be tempted).
Do This Now:
Getting rid of chronic insomnia will probably involve making some long-term changes to your habits. See the rest of the entry for advice. Meanwhile, on a week when you can’t sleep, take these steps.
1. Go for a brisk 20-minute walk outside in the afternoon.
2. About two hours before bed, take a warm bath into which you’ve mixed 15 drops lavender essential oil.
3. If it’s hot in your bedroom, turn down the thermostat or turn on the air conditioner.
4. Take 600 to 900 milligrams of valerian extract standardized to 0.4% valerinic acids.
5. Before you climb into bed, spend 20 minutes on some form of relaxation therapy, such as progressive muscle relaxation or meditation, or write in your journal.
6. If you don’t fall asleep within 30 minutes, get out of bed. Do something low key like reading or folding laundry until you feel tired. Then go back to bed.
7. If you still can’t fall sleep, take a sleeping pill (if you have them) or an over-the-counter antihistamine such as Benadryl.