Saturday, November 23, 2013


Sleep deprived? You're not alone. 

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), 30 to 40 percent of adults have insomnia symptoms at least once a year. 

Up to 15 percent of adults have chronic insomnia--they struggle every night with sleep. Another group of adults have chronic-intermittent insomnia, meaning they sleep well several nights in a row and then have a few bad nights. In fact, eleven different types of insomnia have been identified and cover those who can't fall asleep, those who can't stay asleep, and those who wake up too early and can't return to sleep.

Some of you might not even realize you have insomnia. But if you're a light sleeper who never makes it through the deep revitalizing stages of sleep, or if sleep apnea interrupts your sleep stages, you're likely to feel the exhausting effects.

Women are far more prone to insomnia than men. If you're tossing and turning at night, you don't need a list of how bad a restless night is for your body (you feel awful enough).  What you do need are tips to help you get a better night's sleep. Often the solution is as simple as determining the cause.

 Here's a list of many common causes of insomnia:
  1. Parenting: It's not uncommon for parents, particularly mothers to disrupt their sleep cycle when caring for children. The disruption can come as early as pregnancy and continue as the mother tries to keep up with her baby's short sleep cycle. Even when a growing child requires more and more sleep, mom is the first one woken up after a nightmare of during an illness. Moms quickly adapt by becoming light sleepers.
  2. Bad sleeping habits: Because we try to pack so much into each day, our sleep schedules suffer. Bedtime can vary by hours. Instead of slowing down at night and preparing our body for sleep, we increase our busyness. Other bad sleeping habits include watching TV in bed, reading and any electronic usage.
  3. Hormones: Hormones can easily wreak havoc with sleep, particularly during pregnancy, menstruation, peri-menopause and menopause. Hormone imbalances are not limited to woman and could include problems stemming from improperly firing glands (thyroid, adrenals, pituitary, etc.)
  4. Medicine: Many medications can affect sleep, including anti-depressants, one of the most often requested prescriptions. 
Additional causes of insomnia include pain, health issues, weight, sleep apnea, anxiety, grief, intestinal issues, GERD, and many more. 

What can you do if you're plagued by sleepless nights?
Talk to your doctor if you believe your medication, pain or a health issue is behind the insomnia. Changes in prescriptions or added prescriptions, such as GERD medication may solve the problem.   Depression, anxiety or grief can often be reduced through therapy and/or medication.  Make sure your doctor helps you choose a prescription that does not have the potential to aid insomnia.

Weight and sleep apnea are often (but not always) correlated.   While sleep apnea is extremely dangerous, surgery, weight loss and special breathing machines can help patients manage the problem. If you're not sure if you have sleep apnea, or can't pinpoint why you have insomnia, your doctor may suggest a sleep study.

Another great inducer of sleep is exercise. There are some caveats, however, especially if you have chronic insomnia. For more information, check out tomorrow's blog on a recent exercise/sleep study.

If you believe your insomnia is due to bad sleeping habits, the solution is often as simple as a sleep routine.

-pick a bedtime and stick with it, every night.

-wake up the same time every morning, even when you can sleep in.  Regulating your external schedule helps your body regulate its internal clock.

-lower the temperature in the bedroom. (We sleep better when our body temperature is lowered. The actual range of comfort varies among adults, but most specialists agree 60 to 68 degrees is optimal.)

-avoid caffeinated drinks/foods
-utilize a fan or white noise machine

-keep the room dark or wear an eye mask

-use your bed for sleep only (ummm, yes, sex is allowed--but that's it).  Over time, television, reading, electronics and brain stimulating activities convince your brain that a bed is not for sleeping. 

-if you have trouble falling asleep or wake up at night and can't go back to sleep, doctors often suggest getting out of bed and tending to a quiet activity: reading, writing, etc. The goal is to redirect your thoughts temporarily, wait for your body to "feel" tired again, and then return to bed.  

What about drugs?
Prescription medications are available for sleeping, including Ambien and Lunesta, but these are meant for short-term use. Such medications are often less effective over time.

Unisom, Tylenol PM and similar over-the-counter products contain diphenhydramine (the same ingredient found in Benadryl) and often work for light insomnia. Again, these should be used short-term for intermittent insomnia.  

Natural herbs and vitamins may also help. Some of the more common over-the-counter options include: valerian root, melatonin, chamomile, lemon balm, passion flower and many others.  And a warm glass of milk?  Perhaps it's not just a wives' tale.  Milk contains tryptophan, an important amino acid that raises serotonin and thus melatonin levels.

See your doctor if you're concerned about insomnia or your sleeping habits.  If you wake up every morning feeling exhausted, it may be a sign of poor sleep or sleep apnea.

Here is a useful link to NIH for more information on sleep

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