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Insomnia: When sleep is a struggle

Insomnia can deprive you of the sleep you need to stay healthy. But there are ways to put insomnia to rest.

Sometimes the hardest thing in the world to do is get a good night's rest.

You wake up in the middle of the night and end up staring at the display on your clock radio as the hours pass by.

Or maybe you can't fall asleep in the first place, no matter how many pages you read or sheep you count.

Whether this happens every once in a while or all the time, it's called insomnia—difficulty falling or staying asleep.

Paying for poor sleep

Depending on how badly insomnia interferes with your slumber, it can result in a cranky day or more serious problems.

Not getting enough sleep can impede your performance at work. When you're sleepy, it's tough to concentrate. Your memory might get spotty.

Chronic lack of sleep also has been linked to health problems such as coronary heart disease and depression.

And being sleepy makes driving dangerous. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, drowsy driving is responsible for around 90,000 car crashes in the United States each year, resulting in about 800 deaths.

Why can't I sleep?

According to the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), causes of insomnia include:

  • Environmental factors: noise, light, extreme temperatures.
  • Stress.
  • Depression or anxiety.
  • Relationship problems.
  • Lack of exercise.
  • Erratic sleeping and waking hours.
  • Heartburn.
  • Pain from medical conditions, such as arthritis.
  • Use of stimulants, such as caffeine and some diet drugs.
  • Alcohol use.

Two medical conditions also can interrupt sleep:

Sleep apnea occurs when a person wakes up frequently because he or she stops breathing. Severe snoring and often being tired during the day may be signs of this disorder.

Restless legs syndrome makes a person's legs uncomfortable, particularly when he or she is tired. Moving the legs around—stretching them or walking—helps relieve the sensation. But this can interrupt sleep too.

What helps?

Treatment for insomnia varies according to its cause.

To help find out what's wrong, your doctor might ask you to keep a sleep diary. This is a notebook where you'll write down when you go to bed, when you get up in the morning, how long it takes you to fall asleep, how many hours you slept and how well you slept.

If you can't sleep well because you're stressed out, a doctor may recommend that you learn relaxation techniques.

If a disease is responsible for sleeplessness, a doctor may prescribe treatments for it. For example, medications to treat depression, arthritis or restless legs syndrome may help you sleep better at night.

Sleeping pills also may be prescribed for a short time. However, these aren't a cure for insomnia—just a temporary aid, advises the AAFP. 

Getting in the sleep habit

The best way to fight off insomnia is to work on improving your sleep habits, according to the National Sleep Foundation.

Here are some tips:

  • Set a routine. Go to bed and get up at the same time every day, even on weekends. This helps set your body's internal alarm clock.
  • Establish a going-to-bed ritual, such as taking a warm bath to relax.
  • Avoid caffeine, nicotine and alcohol, especially in the late afternoon and evening hours.
  • Avoid napping during the day. If you do nap, try to keep it to less than half an hour.
  • Avoid large meals before bedtime.
  • Use your bedroom for sleeping, not work.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Make your bedroom as dark, quiet and comfortable as possible.
  • Don't toss and turn. If you can't fall asleep after 20 minutes, get out of bed and do something relaxing. Read a book or listen to music until you get sleepy.

reviewed 8/21/2019

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