Is sleep your worst enemy? If you’re plagued with too many sleepless nights, eyes wide open at 3 a.m., groggy and stumbling out of bed, you’ve likely got insomnia. Women are more prone to insomnia, with hormones often to blame. But there’s no doubt that serious sleep problems plague both males and females. (1)
Insomnia is a bigger problem among divorced, separated, widowed and older people. In fact, 1 in 10 adults of all ages has chronic insomnia. Yet very few get the help they need to get a good night’s sleep. (2)
Problem is, chronic insomnia – and sleep deprivation – takes a toll on your overall health, including your mental health. If you’re an insomniac, you know this means depression, anxiety, and relationship problems. Getting through the workday without being rude is a major hurdle. It’s hard to function normally when your brain is cloudy, your muscles are tense, and you simply don’t feel good – all because of insomnia.
Is it possible to achieve the Holy Grail of 8 hours restful sleep?
If you’re getting to bed in the wee hours, that’s your problem. It isn’t insomnia. Sure, you’ll end up sleep-deprived, but it’s not insomnia.
What doctors call “insomnia” involves difficulty falling asleep and trouble staying asleep. Even when you’ve got plenty of time to spend in bed, you still can’t get enough sleep. You wake up in the early morning. You can’t get back to sleep. The sleep you DO get does not let you feel refreshed. (3)
Insomnia symptoms are a pattern that can come and go. You may struggle one night or for many weeks. Doctors call it a chronic problem when insomnia occurs three nights every week for over a month.
You just can’t get a good 7 or 8 hours of restful sleep, no matter what you do.
Research conducted at Erasmus University in the Netherlands found that even one night of lost sleep may lead to arguments and rude behavior at work the next day. This study shows that this bad behavior can vary from day to day, and a night of poor sleep makes it harder to stop. This can lead to a destructive cycle, which might explain why unethical behavior is persistent in companies today, researchers say. (4)
If you are concerned about insomnia, talk to your doctor. You will have a physical exam, give your medical history, and discuss your sleep problems. You may need to keep a sleep diary for a week or two, to track your sleep patterns and how you’re affected the next day.
Your doctor may want to meet your bed partner to talk about your sleep. You might be referred to a sleep center for tests if your doctor suspects a snoring-related sleep disorder called sleep apnea.
Many medical conditions can cause insomnia symptoms – including pain, arthritis, asthma, depression, heartburn, cancer. Some medications can cause insomnia. Your doctor will need to treat those problems to improve insomnia symptoms.
For the rest of us, the goal is to reduce all the “noise” that gets in the way of a good night’s sleep. This noise is stimulation. The noise can affect the mind, body and the bedroom environment. (5)
Your goal is to reduce the noise level - all types of noise, whether it's inside your head or your home. (6)
This noise is critical because it upsets your body’s ability to produce melatonin, a hormone the body produces. Melatonin regulates the body's circadian rhythm. When the sun goes down, your brain begins producing melatonin. This increase in melatonin hormones triggers the feeling of sleepiness and keeps you sleepy for about 12 hours. As the sun rises, the body reduces production of melatonin, and the levels in your blood decrease greatly.
When noise disrupts your internal circadian rhythm, your body produces less melatonin hormone.
Rhythm desynchronization is another name for this disruption and is often caused by shift work, night work and some psychiatric diseases. The internal clock is no longer working in harmony with the real-world clock.
Melatonin, which is secreted by the pineal gland, is considered the setpoint of the clock. Both daylight and melatonin are useful in treating sleep circadian disorders like insomnia. That’s when a melatonin supplement can help -- resetting your internal circadian rhythm and putting an end to insomnia symptoms. (6)
Stress is certainly the most common cause of insomnia. You likely have trouble relaxing, and your worry about your sleep problems doesn’t help the situation. Even when a stressful event is over, you still have sleep problems. You’re fighting a vicious cycle of sleep angst and sleep loss. Shift work is also a cause of insomnia.
Sleep is more than "not being awake." Your goal with sleep is to go from a waking state into the deeper stages of sleep, which helps restore your body.
In many cases, mild insomnia can be relieved by changing sleep habits.
To treat chronic insomnia, doctors first treat the underlying health problem causing the insomnia symptoms. Your doctor might suggest cognitive-behavioral therapy to help you change behaviors that worsen insomnia symptoms -- and learn new ways to promote sleep.
If insomnia is tied to emotional and stress-related conditions, behavioral therapy will help. Mindfulness practices like relaxation exercises, biofeedback, and other therapies may also help. While these techniques must be learned, they can help you cope better with insomnia and restore healthier sleep patterns.
To help you function better during the day, your doctor might prescribe sleeping pills for a short time. Certain medications can help you avoid drowsiness the next day. Researchers don’t know about the long-term safety and effectiveness of these drugs. Steer clear of over-the-counter sleeping pills for insomnia.
Yoga and meditation are mind-body therapies that have been shown to work well in improving insomnia. A 2017 study found that combining these mindfulness therapies plus cognitive behavioral therapy has the best effect in establishing a healthier sleep pattern. Patients with insomnia symptoms typically self-treat with sleep medications, but there is concern regarding both long- and short-term health impacts of these sleep medications.(7)
Along with lifestyle changes, you have a good chance of taking control of factors that interfere with a good night's sleep.
Lack of sun exposure can certainly cause insomnia, especially if you’re not exposed to the sun in the morning or by noon. The sun helps set your internal circadian rhythm.
A study published in the journal Sleep reported that workers who are exposed to the most sunlight or bright indoor lights – especially during morning hours – tended to sleep better at night. They also had fewer sleep interruptions during the night compared to others who got less light exposure in the morning. And they reported feeling less stressed and depressed than others who weren’t exposed to much morning light. (8)
All sources of caffeine - coffee, tea, and chocolate - are stimulating, and the effects can linger in your system up to 12 hours. Alcohol is also a stimulant and can make you wake up during the night. You won't feel rested the next morning.
Avoiding food at least three hours before bedtime lowers blood sugar during sleep. This also helps your body go into fat-burning mode.
While napping may seem the antidote to lost sleep, it’s not good for your long-term sleep pattern. To get past insomnia, you need to set a regular sleep pattern. You’ve got to train yourself to have a consistent bedtime. Napping will disrupt the quality of your night’s sleep.
Regular exercise will improve sleep quality; you'll also sleep longer if you exercise. Just make sure to exercise earlier in the day, not before bedtime. Otherwise, you risk getting overly stimulated.
Vow to stop worrying before bedtime. If you need to plan your next day, do it before dinner. This will help your brain quit working as you've resolved your issues earlier in the evening.
Limit bed activities. If you’re struggling with insomnia, don’t work or study in bed. Don’t even watch television or listen to the radio. These activities can make it difficult to fall asleep, as they can make you overly alert. Use your bed for sleeping and sex, that’s all.
That includes computer, tablets, TV, and smartphones. A 2013 study found that brightness was enough to suppress normal nighttime release of melatonin hormone and if you delay that signal, you could delay sleep. Over many years time, it can seriously affect your internal circadian clock.
Just two hours spent using an iPad at maximum brightness suppressed normal nighttime release of melatonin, researchers report. The brightness, exposure time, and wavelength determined whether s melatonin was affected. The blue-and-white range light emitted from tablets, laptops and desktop computers are to blame. Computers emit even more disruptive light, but because they are typically further from the eyes, the effect is not as strong. (9)
Under 70 degrees is optimal for sleeping; cooler is better.
Several stress reduction and relaxation therapies can relax the mind and body before bedtime. Mindfulness methods like meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing, and imagery are good ways to reduce stress.
Use your imagination. Think about something that's more pleasant. Create a perfect scene that you would enjoy. Let your mind focus on that scene, instead of your worries.
Starting at your feet, tighten and relax each muscle group – one at a time -- up to your head.
Breathe through your mouth or your nose. Slow, steady, deep breathing will help you relax while rapid, shallow breathing will increase the stress. If you can't sleep, combine controlled breathing and counting. This gives your mind another focus besides worries.
Instead of lying in bed frustrated, get up. Keep lights dim. Write until you get sleepy. Write about something peaceful, not about your worries.
If you want to tame your insomnia symptoms and get a decent night’s sleep, try sleeping au natural. Since scientific research shows that even a slight drop in body temperature helps promote good sleep, this might be worth a try. Just a small fraction - 12 percent of Americans - sleep naked, according to a National Sleep Foundation poll. However, researchers and doctors highly recommend this practice. (10)
Warmer skin disrupts sleep, and cooling the body is beneficial especially to the elderly, one study found. Using a thermosuit to control skin temperature during sleep, researchers demonstrated that a mere 0.4 degrees C increase in skin temperature disrupted sleep and prevented deeper stages of sleep in young, elderly, healthy and insomniac participants, they state in the journal Brain.
Elderly volunteers in the study showed an unusually strong sensitivity to temperature, as the slight increase in skin temperature almost doubled their difficulty with deep sleep as well as early morning awakening. (11)
Lowering your body temperature helps to produce brown fat, which helps generate heat and regulates body temperature – and burns calories faster. Your blood sugar control and insulin sensitivity regulation will be improved, important for diabetes.
Because there’s nothing to restrict blood flow, your entire body will benefit, especially muscles and heart.
When you skip clothing, bacteria are less likely to grow in the vaginal area. That includes yeast infections which thrive in warm, moist environments.
The testicles keep sperm at a stable temperature. Underwear that constricts the testicles can reduce sperm quality and affect fertility.
The “bonding” hormone oxytocin is released with all the extra skin contact, opportunity for sex and orgasms. All this sexual closeness enhances emotional attachment.
You'll have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol when your body stays cool at night. You'll also have balanced melatonin which promotes optimal sleep and eases stress, anxiety and food cravings.
New studies are showing that acupuncture can help with insomnia just as it helps with pain and other mind-body problems. Some supplements including melatonin are well-studied and have helped many people overcome symptoms of insomnia. Don’t suffer. Be proactive. Get the help you need in treating the vexing problem of insomnia. It’s critical to your overall physical and mental health. (12)