According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), insomnia is a sleep disorder that affects nearly 60 million Americans a year (NIH, 2007).
Almost everyone experiences some form of short-term insomnia in his or her life. Some people with insomnia have trouble getting to sleep at night, while others have trouble staying asleep. These people often do not feel refreshed when morning arrives. The problem may last for just a night or two, or it may be an ongoing issue.
According to an article by the National Sleep Foundation, between 30 and 40 percent of adults in the United States have trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep at some point during any given year. Another 10 to 15 percent of the population consider their insomnia to be a chronic problem (National Sleep Foundation, 2011).
While it is typically impossible to remove all the triggers of insomnia from your life, you can make some straightforward lifestyle changes to improve your sleep and quality of life.
There are many reasons you may have trouble sleeping. Many of them are linked to your sleeping habits, lifestyle, and personal circumstances. These include:
- an irregular sleep schedule
- sleeping during the day
- a job that involves working at night
- lack of exercise
- using electronic devices like laptops and cell phones in bed
- having a sleep environment with too much noise or light
- a recent death of a loved one
- a recent job loss
- various other sources of stress
- excitement about an upcoming event
- recent travel between different time zones (jet lag)
People with some medical conditions may be more prone to insomnia than other members of the general population. These conditions include:
- bipolar disorder
- thyroid disease
- restless legs syndrome
- sleep apnea
Finally, the use of certain substances seems to have a negative effect on sleep. These include:
- cold medicines
- diet pills
- certain types of prescription medications
When deciding whether to see a doctor about your insomnia, keep in mind that many people have occasional trouble sleeping. However, if the issue is a regular problem that is having a negative impact on your life, it is probably time to schedule an appointment.
As part of the diagnostic process, your doctor will likely perform a physical exam and ask you about your symptoms. Your physician will also want to know about any medications you take and your overall medical history.
Your doctor might first suggest lifestyle changes that will help you address your insomnia. He or she may also prescribe medications or recommend certain types of therapies that may help rid you of the problem.
There are serious health risks associated with chronic insomnia. According to the NIH, insomnia can lead to daytime sleepiness. Getting too little sleep on a regular basis can weaken the immune system and is believed to be a contributing factor in many car accidents (NIH, 2011).
In addition, the National Sleep Foundation states that those with insomnia miss work more often, have an elevated risk of depression, and have higher overall rates of illness and poorer health in general (National Sleep Foundation, 2011).
There are many strategies that may help those who suffer from insomnia. Some of them include:
- Establish a regular sleep schedule: go to bed at the same time each night and get up at the same time each morning.
- Do something that will help you relax and wind down before going to bed. This could be having a warm bath or reading a chapter of a novel.
- Do not drink alcohol or beverages containing caffeine during the evening hours.
- Do not eat heavy meals or engage in strenuous physical activity in the two hours leading up to your bedtime.
- Try to make your sleep environment as comfortable as possible. You should make sure it is dark and quiet, and the temperature remains at a level that is not overly hot or cold.
- Do not lie in bed for hours if you find you are having trouble falling asleep. According to the NIH, if you do not fall asleep within a half hour of lying down, get up, leave your bedroom, and do something else until you actually feel sleepy (NIH, 2010).
- Learn and use relaxation techniques, such as yoga.
- Avoid taking naps in the later hours of the afternoon and the evening.
If you have insomnia, try some or all of the above tips. You might find that they help you get the rest you need to feel refreshed and alert during the day, without having to take prescription medications that can have side effects.
Written by: Krista O'Connell
Medically reviewed by George Krucik, MD