If you’re reading this article at 3AM because you can’t stand to twist and turn in the sheets any longer or can’t bear another 19.95 infomercial, you may have insomnia. Symptoms of insomnia include difficulty falling asleep, waking often during the night, and waking up earlier than you want to in the morning.
Fortunately, the most effective treatment for both temporary and chronic insomnia is behavioral. That means you can help yourself sleep better just by changing your sleeping habits and your attitude toward sleep. Here I’ve assembled the changes most commonly recommended by people who know about these things.
What Causes Insomnia?
Sleep problems come with a laundry list of possible causes, including no apparent cause at all, which is referred to as primary insomnia and must be extremely frustrating for those who have it. However, it’s much more common to experience secondary insomnia, which is generally easier to deal with because it’s just a symptom of an identifiable underlying issue. Deal with that, and you should be able to sleep again. These are the most common culprits:
- stress, anxiety, or depression
- physical discomfort, possibly from a medical condition
- an irregular or recently changed sleep schedule
- a noisy or otherwise disrupted sleeping environment
- lack of physical activity
- alcohol, tobacco, or drug use
Best Treatments for Insomnia
Establish a circadian rhythm. That means always going to bed at about the same time, even if it’s luau night at your favorite bar. And it means getting up at the same time every morning, including your day off. Your brain learns your bodily habits and adjusts to them. If you regulate your sleep schedule and avoid taking naps during the day, you should eventually find yourself getting sleepy around your usual bedtime.
Limit your time spent in bed to time spent sleeping—and maybe having sex. Seriously, your brain is like Santa Claus: it sees everything you do and keeps a record. If you use your bed to do wakeful things like reading, watching TV, or getting work done, then when you finally climb into bed hoping to sleep, you’ll be subconsciously keeping yourself awake to do all those other things. Also, when you do find yourself tossing and turning, you should get up and do something soothing, like reading or listening to music, until you feel sleepy enough to go back to bed. Otherwise you’ll start to associate your bed with sleeplessness, and voila!—it’ll come true.
Exercise regularly. Lots of studies have indicated that people who exercise at least 20 minutes a few times a week fall asleep more quickly and wake feeling more rested, though doctors sometimes disagree over why this works. The important thing, though, is that it does work. Just make sure you’re getting your exercise in the morning or afternoon; exercising within three or four hours of your bedtime can actually cause insomnia.
Make your sleeping environment conducive to sleep. Your bedroom should be dark, quiet, and at a comfortable temperature. If you share a bed with someone who snores, buy some nasal strips. If you have a dog that takes up three-quarters of the bed and a cat that sleeps on your head, shut them out of the room, even if you feel bad about it. The most important consideration in the bedroom is your ability to sleep there.
Watch what you eat and drink before bed. Eating a large meal late in the evening will not only promote weight gain, but can also make it hard to sleep. If you drink too many fluids before going to bed, your bladder will wake you up all night, and if there’s caffeine in those fluids, you probably won’t fall asleep in the first place. Caffeine can stay in your system for quite a while, so it’s best to avoid it for several hours before you try to sleep. And while a glass of brandy before bed might seem like a relaxing way to help yourself sleep, having alcohol in your system can actually make you sleep less deeply and wake up still feeling tired.
We’ve all seen the commercials. A bedroom flooded with blue moonlight. A fluffy down comforter. Attractive people in the depths of sleep so blissful they’re smiling. In their sleep. Yeah, that’s not real. No doubt, prescription sleep aids will put you to sleep. But virtually all of them are temporary solutions. So far, only Lunesta has been FDA approved for long-term use; other sleeping pills can only be used for six to eight weeks at a time to prevent patients from developing a tolerance or becoming addicted. Also, any medication for insomnia should be combined with the behavioral changes detailed above. Behavioral remedies for insomnia are effective for most people, so it makes sense to try them before going the pharmaceutical route. Of course, behavioral changes alone might not make you sleep better immediately, tonight, this very second, the way a sleeping aid will, but there are also no side effects.
Since drugs for insomnia work in your brain, depressing your nervous system or adjusting the levels of natural chemicals that govern sleep cycles, they can have unintended effects on anything controlled by your brain—that is, your whole body. Many people taking prescription sleeping aids report daytime anxiety, nausea, memory loss, dizziness and fatigue. And these are just the most common side effects. Others can be scary or bizarre: some people have hallucinations or get up in the night to eat or drive and have no memory of it in the morning. Then, when people stop taking an insomnia drug, they sometimes experience withdrawal or “rebound insomnia,” meaning they can’t sleep when they want to. Again. So although insomnia drugs might provide immediate relief when you first begin making the behavioral changes that can cure insomnia, they are not themselves the cure.