We've all pulled all-nighters, and you know how bad you feel after cramming for that final exam. But imagine how you'd feel if your entire life consisted of one all-nighter after another . . . forever. If you feel like a rock instead of sleep like one, you may be among the 40 to 50 percent of Americans who complain of occasional bouts with insomnia. In fact, every year, as many as 10 million Americans consult a physician for help with their sleep disorders. True, Leonardo da Vinci, Winston Churchill and Florence Nightingale only slept four hours a night, but they were obviously freaks of nature. While the required amount of sleep varies from person to person, most of us mere mortals need between seven and nine hours a night.
Insomnia can have serious repercussions, including:
Making us feel lousy and listless
Making us moody
Lowering our thinking speed and productivity
Weakening the immune system, making us more susceptible to viruses
Being a major factor in 200,000 auto accidents every year; costing the economy billions of dollars for workplace absenteeism; playing a role in industrial disasters such as the Exxon Valdez and the Three Mile Island nuclear-plant accident.
It's important to take steps to prevent insomnia. Fortunately, some very simple lifestyle changes can help you get better rest.accident.
Classify Your Problem
"Insomnia" describes any episode of unrefreshing sleep, difficulty falling asleep, frequent awakenings, or waking up too early in the morning. Women and the elderly are the most frequent victims.
To overcome your insomnia, your first move is to classify the type you are battling, because each type presents unique challenges and calls for different treatment.
Transient insomnia is a disturbance in sleeping patterns that lasts only for a few nights. In such a case, you have a brief run-in with jet lag, excitement, stress, illness or a change in sleep schedule.
Here is the good news: Those with transient insomnia soon return to normal, and sleeping pills ease the course of the problem. While not conducive to long-term use, in the short term, sleeping pills provide relief without fear of dependence or a gradual loss of their effectiveness.
Short-term insomnia is slightly more serious, because it persists for about two to three weeks. Contributing factors include a job change, divorce, serious illness, financial problems or the death of a close friend or relative.
Chronic insomnia is the rarest and most serious type, with episodes lasting longer than a few weeks. In spite of this, 10 to 15 percent of the U.S. population suffers from it.
To combat chronic insomnia, you must first rule out the possibility that it is a symptom of some other underlying health problem. See a doctor to ensure that such conditions as heart disease, diabetes, epilepsy, pregnancy, menopause or arthritis are not responsible for the sleep loss. In addition, medications prescribed for certain health conditions, such as high blood pressure or asthma, may adversely affect sleep.
Also identify any psychological factors standing in the way of your beauty rest. If you feel sad, worthless or suicidal, you may be depressed. In fact, one of the premier symptoms of depression is the inability to go back to sleep after waking up too early. By treating mental conditions, you can often alleviate the sleeping problem that is just a manifestation of a larger issue.
Change Your Diet and Exercise Routine
While it would be nice to blame insomnia on things we can't control, stress is the leading cause of insomnia. Many cases of insomnia also stem from lifestyle habits.
Caffeine is the most widely known cause of insomnia; if you are tossing and turning at night, start by tossing out the caffeine. An ingredient in coffee, tea, colas, chocolate and some medications, caffeine is a stimulant and a nightmare for the sleep-deprived. For the especially sensitive, its effects can last as long as 20 hours.
Alcohol is tricky. You may argue that liquor acts as a sedative and initially helps to induce sleep. However, alcohol actually lightens and fragments sleep, causing you to wake up as your body metabolizes it. You may think you're out cold, but you're not getting the well-rested sleep that you need. While you're at it, try to limit your intake of any liquids close to bedtime. The moral of the story: Less nightcap, more Happy Hour. Besides, read some alcohol facts. It turns out it's not so great for your brain, either.
You may tend to feel sleepy after a heavy meal, but the trick's on you: Heavy meals actually keep you awake as your digestive system puts in some overtime. Keep track of what you're eating before bed. Also avoid spicy and fatty foods that cause heartburn; MSG (found most commonly in Chinese food); and foods that cause gas. However, the right kind of eating can improve the quality of sleep as much as undermine it. Milk has an amino acid that the body converts to a sleep-enhancing compound in the brain. Calcium is a natural relaxing agent, along with several other vitamins, such as the B vitamins and magnesium.
If hunger bothers you at night, have a light snack before bedtime. Some foods in particular promote the production of melatonin, a hormone associated with the onset of sleep. Among these desirable snacks are cottage cheese, soy nuts, chicken, pumpkin seeds and turkey. That's why you're so sluggish after your Thanksgiving meal. Finally, high-carbohydrate foods like bread act upon another essential hormone, serotonin, which reduces anxiety and contributes to refreshing sleep.
When it comes to smoking, if you won't listen to the American Lung Association, at least pay attention to the bags under your eyes. For the light sleeper, nicotine has to go. It's a stimulant that increases blood pressure, speeds up the heart rate and stimulates brain activity. Of course, there's also the whole cancer issue. There are plenty of online "quit smoking" support groups, so join one and kick the habit.
Regular exercise is a sleep promoter. But if you work out too close to bedtime, the increase in your heart rate and metabolism will make your body too excitable to sleep. Exercising in the late afternoon is ideal, because you then have time in the evening to settle down. In this way, exercise has the same sleep-enhancing effect as a warm bath. Both activities help to raise body temperature, and the body reacts by producing melatonin to take the body temperature back down.
Improve Your Sleeping Environment
It may seem obvious, but make your bed as comfortable as possible. Experiment with what works best for you, be it a feather bed or a waterbed.
Choose a position conducive to sleep. This is often the position you find yourself waking up in. If your sleeping partner is the source of your insomnia (as is often the case), asking him to sleep in the garage isn't a viable option. Rather, if he kicks or snores, think of buying a bigger bed or earplugs. If she makes many toilet trips during the night, situate her on the side of the bed closer to the bathroom.
Get rid of the large, luminous clock that's staring at you. It not only produces distracting light, but is a stressful reminder that you aren't sleeping. The act of worrying about sleep is, in itself, enough to keep you awake.
Control the amount of light in your bedroom. Excessive brightness not only affects your eyes, but also influences the hormone production that helps to establish a healthy sleep cycle. Wear a sleep mask if necessary.
When it comes to noise, many people find repetitive sounds easier to sleep through than intermittent and abrupt ones. Earplugs or a continuous background sound, such as a fan, can help mask disturbing noise (like the next-door neighbors' fight or a barking dog). Another option to consider is a white-noise machine.
Control the thermostat. Temperature extremes, whether too hot or too cold, are no fun for the light sleeper.
Alter Your Sleeping Schedule
Try to keep your bedtime consistent from night to night. This is no doubt difficult for those with shifting work schedules, but by sticking to the same general bedtime and waking time every day (even weekends), regardless of the amount of sleep you get, you are more likely establish a regular sleeping rhythm.
Cut out napping. Although it is occasionally refreshing, a power nap cannot substitute for a full night of REM, and it perpetuates the poor sleep cycle.
Don't do your taxes or file your nails in bed. You should associate your bed only with sleeping and sex. So to bed once you feel sleepy, and if Hypnos, the Greek God of sleep, doesn't pay you a visit within 15 to 30 minutes, get out of bed.
If you can't sleep, don't stress and gripe. This just makes you more anxious and less likely to get your rest. This isn't to say that you should participate in extreme sports at 3 a.m. Do a low-key activity ( such as take a warm bath or read, and return to bed as soon as you feel tired again). It really doesn't pay to stress about sleep.
Once you start using these tips, keep a sleep diary for one to two weeks. Note which applied techniques work for you.
Consider Medical Treatments and Behavioral Techniques
While some of us may prefer the naturalistic suggestions given above, a sizable portion of insomniacs cry out, "Just drug me! Give me some pills and knock me out!" Here are some interventions you can use to help bring the onset of sleep.
As we stated before, those with transient insomnia get the greatest benefit from sleeping pills. As a general rule, take them for the shortest time and in the lowest doses as possible. You must be extremely careful with sleeping pills; they only remain effective for two to three weeks, at which point you may develop a tolerance for (or an addiction to) them.
The most commonly prescribed pills come from the benzodiazephine family; however, they do tend to have side effects, including a "hangover" feeling, motor-coordination problems, memory loss and low levels of alertness. Many Americans, nevertheless, seem to believe that the benefits outweigh the drawbacks--as many as 5 to 8 percent of the adult population in Western countries uses sleeping pills more than once a week.
Some regard melatonin as a more attractive alternative to sleeping pills because your pineal gland naturally secretes melatonin in the dark. Taking melatonin supplements became popular in the early '90s, when doctors found it instrumental to the onset of sleep.
As little as .1mg can enhance sleep, so taking 1 to 3mg an hour or so before bed will surely do the trick. Supposedly, melatonin supplements will not interfere with sleep quality, memory or next-day performance in the way pills do. Furthermore, it does not lose its effectiveness in the long run. You can pick up some tablets in any health-food store, but remember that scientists are still testing the effects of the stuff. Melatonin is a hormone, and any teenager can tell you that hormones can get complicated.
The next suggestion is the herb valerian. Quite popular in Europe and available in health stores, valerian improves sleep quality without causing a hangover effect. Just steep about 300 to 400mg of the root in hot water for tea 30 minutes before bedtime. Other popular herbs include skullcap, passion flower, California poppy and lemon balm.
There's also a possibility the problem is purely mental. If that's the case, here are some options:
Experiment with relaxation and meditation techniques at bedtime to reduce body tension and relieve the muscles. Talk a partner/spouse into giving you a slow massage as treatment for your insomnia. Also, some people find sex prior to bed relaxing.
Some more drastic/extreme techniques include sleep restriction or light therapy. For sleep restriction, limit yourself to only a few hours of sleep a night and gradually increase the time you allot. You basically exhaust yourself until you can sleep normally. On the other hand, light therapy works under the premise that your internal clock is out of whack and just needs to be reset to reflect the actual time of day. For example, if you wake up too early, expose yourself to bright light in the evening, thereby convincing your body to get tired later that night and sleep later the next morning. If you go to sleep too late, light exposure in the morning serves the same purpose.
Cognitive therapy is another option. Many people have dysfunctional attitudes about sleep that can lead to a vicious spiral. If you're nervous about sleep, you cannot relax long enough to get it. In this case, a therapist can talk through your concerns with you, bring your harmful attitudes to the surface and give you a new sense of control.
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