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How to sleep with insomnia

If you often find yourself lying awake at night for hours after going to bed, or are simply having trouble staying asleep, you may have sleep insomnia. For many of you, unfortunately you'll know this feeling all too well. In this article, we'll dive into what causes sleep insomnia, how to treat it and tips on helping you overcome sleep problems. 

What is sleep insomnia?

Sleep insomnia is a sleep disorder which is characterised by a person having difficulty falling or staying asleep. According to the Sleep Health Foundation, 1 in 3 people experience mild sleep insomnia sometimes.  

Sleep insomnia symptoms can include:

  • Irritability
  • General tiredness
  • Problems with concentration
  • Waking up often during the night
  • Having difficulty falling asleep
  • Waking up too early

There are varying intensities of insomnia, from occasional to chronic. According to WebMD, insomnia is chronic if it occurs three nights per week for at least a month, acute if it occurs one to two nights per week, and occasional if it occurs less than that.

The effects can be far-reaching. “Getting enough good-quality sleep is essential to staying healthy and aging well. A lack of sleep can have serious consequences such as a higher risk of type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and other health conditions,” says Morton Tavel, M.D., a cardiologist with more than 20 years experience in the field.

The causes of sleep insomnia

How does one end up with insomnia? This is the question you may be asking yourself as you lie awake at 3 o’clock in the morning for no apparent reason. The following can be contributing factors:

  • Stress, often considered by most sleep experts to be the number one cause of short-term sleeping difficulties
  • Environmental factors (i.e. a cluttered room, noise, light, temperature)
  • Pain
  • A mattress with insufficient support
  • Medications
  • Diet
  • Not exercising
  • Too much screen time
  • Inconsistent sleep schedule
  • No bedtime routine
  • Working too many hours

Sleep insomnia treatments

We all want to live long, healthy, well-rested lives, so here is what you can do to beat insomnia and get a good night’s sleep.

If you are diagnosed with acute insomnia, doctors may not prescribe any treatment except for practicing better sleep habits says WebMD. On the other hand, they may prescribe sleeping pills. Dr. Tavel advises, “If you do take a prescription sleep medicine, work with your doctor to use it effectively and for as short a time as possible.”

For chronic insomnia, a doctor will often search for the underlying conditions or health problems that are causing the problem. They may suggest behavioural therapy which can include reconditioning, sleep restriction therapy and relaxation exercises.

Tips to beat insomnia

How can you relieve your insomnia and get restful nights of sleep without sleeping medications? First, prepare to make some lifestyle changes. It will take time, consistency, and tracking. Once you have committed to the goal, here is what you can do.

1. Put yourself on a sleep schedule

A regular sleep schedule can help you to fall asleep and wake up more easily. Dr. Tavel recommends going to bed at the same time each night and waking up at the same time each morning.

It is important to try and keep on your schedule, even on the weekends, so you don’t set yourself back. An interesting study performed by (a meditation app), found that Sunday nights were by far the most troublesome nights for sleeping. “The biggest reason is that people get off of their normal sleep routine over the weekend.” says Clinical Psychologist and Insomnia Specialist Dr. Steve Orma.

If you throw off your schedule every weekend, you will spend each following week trying to get back on schedule and just when you do; it will be the weekend again. This creates an endless loop of sleep problems.

Dr. Tavel also advised against daytime napping, saying that prolonged naps can disrupt your natural sleep cycle and prevent you from feeling tired enough to fall asleep at night.

So plan out a reasonable bedtime and wake time that gives you enough hours of sleep, and stick to it. If you wake up throughout the night and find yourself tossing and turning, Dr. Tavel recommends getting up for a while to read and relax and then returning to bed.

2. Cut out food and drinks that disrupt sleep

There are certain food and drinks that can disrupt your sleep. The most prominent culprits are caffeine, alcohol, high sugar foods and spicy foods. It is best to avoid these within six hours of your bedtime.

It’s important to note that caffeine is not just found in coffee, but in tea, chocolate, energy drinks, some energy bars, and fizzy drinks. It stimulates the body which makes it harder to get to sleep. Alcohol, on the other hand, is a depressant so many people think a nightcap can help them get to sleep. However, in an interview with psychoanalyst and sleep expert Jonathon Alpert, he says “It may knock you out initially, but within a few hours, as the body starts to eliminate the alcohol, it will wake you or, at best, cause a restless sleep”.

As for sweet foods, they can trigger a blood sugar crash that causes you to wake up in the night, while spicy foods can cause acid reflux which makes it harder to get to sleep.

Try experimenting with removing these items from your diet and tracking the impact it has on your sleep over a week’s time. If you can’t remove them completely, try limiting their consumption within six hours of bedtime.

Another important note on food and drink is timing. Even if you aren’t eating foods or drinking beverages that are known to disrupt sleep, if you ingest them too close to bedtime they can still wake you up due to digestion processes and needing to use the restroom. To prevent this, stop eating and drinking about two hours before you go to bed.

3. Get Exercise

Exercise can also help you sleep. Dr. Tavel explained that regular aerobic exercise helps you to fall asleep faster, wake less in the night, and get more restorative deep sleep. You can choose from exercises like running, walking, swimming, cycling, spin classes, surfing, or anything that gets your heart rate up. It is advised that you perform your exercise in the morning or early afternoon as it can have a stimulating effect that wakes you up for hours immediately following the workout.

4. Find out if you have misalignments of the spine

Be mindful of how your body is positioned when you sleep. We spend a great deal of time in bed, about a third of our lives, so it is important that our body is properly aligned during that time. When it’s not, you may experience pain and difficulty getting comfortable which leads to tossing and turning throughout the night.

Dr. Pamela Abramson-Levine of Family Practice Non-Force Chiropractor recommends getting evaluated by a doctor of chiropractic for subluxations (misalignments) of the spine and/or cranial bones. She says, “If you do have misalignments, getting adjusted to correct those misalignments can help relieve insomnia by bringing the nervous system into a more balanced state.”

You will also want to consider the quality of your mattress to determine if it is providing you with the proper support. It’s not uncommon for people to sleep on a mattress past its expiration date or to have a low-quality mattress to begin with. This can have detrimental consequences on your body and sleep quality, so look for a mattress manufacturer with technology that focuses on orthopaedically correct support.

5. Put in place some relaxing practices

It’s helpful to implement some relaxing practices to unwind with before bed. Here are some ideas:

  • Natural remedies - Dr. Abramson recommends diffusing the essential oils lavender and chamomile, drinking chamomile tea or taking a chamomile extract orally.
  • Relaxation techniques - Alpert recommends meditation, guided imagery, and progressive muscle relaxation.
  • Writing - Alpert suggests having a journal to write down anything that is on your mind before bed. As a result, you can relieve the chronic worry that keeps many people up.
  • Wind down activities - Dr. Darley recommends reading a paper book, stretching, doing yoga or listening to an audiobook.

Find what relaxation techniques work best for you and make them part of your nightly routine.

6. Be mindful of the impact of light

Light can disrupt your sleep as well. It is recommended that all electronic equipment is turned off an hour before bed, including computers, phones, and televisions. If you don’t, your brain may not shift into sleep mode because it still getting signals to stay awake.

Instead of winding down with an electric device that emits light, it will be helpful to spend your last hour before bed doing a relaxation practice like those listed above.

How to create a sleep-friendly zone

You’ll also want to ensure your environment is not causing any sleep disturbances. Here are some tips for a sleep-friendly room.

  • Turn your alarm clock away from you - Alpert advises that checking the clock throughout the night can lead to more anxiety.
  • Make sure the bed is the right size and firmness
  • Ensure the temperature isn’t too warm or too cold
  • Make it quiet - Dr. Tavel says a noisemaker that emits a steady background noise can be helpful as well as earplugs.
  • Put your cell phone away - “Do not sleep with your cell phone by your head. Unconsciously your brain might not allow itself to get into a deep sleep, knowing a call or text might come through any moment,” says Alpert. This goes for other devices like tablets as well.
  • Make it very dark - Dr. Darley recommends making your room very dark. Blackout shades can help with this as well as a sleeping mask.
  • Keep the bed a place of relaxation - “You want your bed to have a strong association with sleep, not with wakeful activities,” says Dr. Darley. “Remove the television, telephone, and office equipment from the bedroom. This reinforces the idea that this room is meant for sleeping,” says Dr. Tavel.
  • Keep it clean - Dr. Darley advised that a clean room can prevent a histamine reaction to dust or dust mites. Furthermore, it will be more relaxing as you won’t be thinking about how you need to clean your room.

Beat insomnia and get a good night’s sleep

It can be extremely frustrating to struggle with insomnia night after night. However, by implementing these tips to induce and promote sleep, you can help yourself to get more rest. A large part of beating insomnia, in many cases, is developing better habits that make sleep more of a priority. The truth is, without proper sleep, we can’t give our best during the day. It’s worth the investment to commit to a few changes that will pay dividends with good health and energy.

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