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Insomnia: When You Just Can’t Sleep

Date: 05/01/22

A good night’s sleep can leave you feeling rested and ready for the day, of course. But sleep is much more important than that. When you sleep, your body heals and repairs cells, tissues, and brain cells. Your brain stays busy forming the pathways that form memories and help us to learn new things. But many people have a common condition, called insomnia, that interferes with their ability to sleep well.

What is Insomnia?

People with insomnia may have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or wake up too early. Insomnia can get in the way of your daily activities and may make you feel sleepy during the day. Short-term insomnia may be caused by stress or changes in your schedule or environment. It can last for a few days or weeks. Chronic (long-term) insomnia occurs 3 or more nights a week, lasts more than 3 months, and cannot be fully explained by another health problem.”

Causes and Risk Factors

No one thing causes insomnia. but some factors put people at a greater risk. For example, women and people over age 60 have insomnia more often than men or younger people. In addition, certain mental health disorders and physical health conditions – and the medications that treat them – can interfere with sleep. Other things that might make you more likely to have insomnia include stress, not having a regular sleep schedule (because of work, travel, or for other reasons), using stimulants like caffeine or nicotine, or drinking alcohol, or eating too much late in the evening.

How can Insomnia Affect Your Health?

Whatever your reason for sleep loss, insomnia can affect you both mentally and physically. People with insomnia report a lower quality of life compared with people who are sleeping well. A lack of sleep can lower your ability at work, lead to accidents, and cause weight gain.

In addition, chronic lack of sleep can put you at higher risk for:

  • Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia
  • Mental health disorders, such as depression, anxiety disorders, or substance abuse
  • Increased risk and severity of long-term diseases or conditions, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease
  • Infections

What can You Do About Insomnia?

If someone you know has substance use disorder, there are things you can do to support their recovery. There are also things you can do to support yourself. Here are some suggestions from the NIH, the Mayo Clinic, and the American Heart Association:

Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. Set an alarm or use an app to remind you when it’s time to wind down, if necessary.  

Get some sunlight every day. Try to get at least 30 minutes of exposure to the sun every day, especially in the morning.

Limit electronics before bed. The blue light that electronic devices emit acts like sunlight and tells your body it’s time to be awake.

Avoid alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine. Alcohol can make you feel relaxed, but it keeps you in the lighter stages of sleep and you might wake up in the middle of the night.

Don’t eat large meals before bedtime. Eating too much before bed can cause indigestion or acid reflux (or make you get up often to go to the restroom!). Eat big meals two hours or more before bedtime.

Avoid or limit naps. Naps are fine, and even good for your brain, but try not to take a nap after 3pm and keep it short – not more than an hour.

Establish a bedtime routine. Do things consistently that relax you and prepare you for bed. Take a warm bath, listen to music, meditate, or do relaxation exercises. Journaling and reading are good, too (but it might be better to read a paper book than an e-book!)

Prep your bedroom. Your bedroom should be for sleep and sex only. Don’t have things in the bedroom that are distracting, like computers or tv. Many people sleep better in cooler rooms.

Don’t lie in bed awake The anxiety of not being able to fall asleep can make it even harder to fall asleep. If you haven’t fallen asleep in 20 minutes, get up and do something relaxing from your bedtime routine.

Talk to your doctor. If you continue to have trouble sleeping, talk to your doctor. The problem might be a medication or condition that they can help you with.

Written by Cyndi Maxim

Resources: 

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, Mayo Clinic, American Heart Association