Although insomnia presents any time of the year, many of us experience the trio of fatigue, stress, and an inability to sleep during the holiday season. According to the Mayo Clinic, insomnia is defined as a condition in which either you have difficulty falling asleep, can’t stay asleep, or both, despite adequate opportunity for good sleep to occur. Symptoms of insomnia may include: not feeling well rested after a night’s sleep, daytime sleepiness, irritability, depression, and/or anxiety, difficulty paying attention or focusing on tasks, tension and headaches.
Who’s at risk? Women, older adults and all of us
Insomnia is one of the most common conditions reported to doctors. According to a 2005 National Institute of Health Conference on the subject, one third of Americans complain about insomnia at some point in their life. Nearly anyone can have an occasional sleepless night, but the risk of persistent insomnia is greater if you are a woman; anyone older than age 60; unemployed; divorced; widowed; separated; or have a disruption in sleep/wake cycle. Women are much more likely to experience insomnia because of hormonal shifts during the menstrual cycle, especially during menopause. Many conditions associated with depression, bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress also disrupt sleep. Early morning awakening is a very classic symptom of depression. Stressful events may cause temporary insomnia such as the death of a loved one, divorce, unemployment and financial pressures. Night shift work or persistent travel across multiple time zones increases insomnia risk by interfering with normal wake/sleep cycles.
Is insomnia serious?
Sleep is as important to one’s health as a normal diet and exercise. People with persistent insomnia report a lower quality of life compared with people who are sleeping well. Chronic insomnia may lead to low performance on the job or at school, slowed reaction time while driving with a higher risk of accidents, psychiatric problems such as depression, overeating, poor immune system function, and increased risk and severity of long term diseases, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes.
Here are 10 important tips about what you can do about insomnia:
- Stick to a sleep schedule. Keep bedtime and wake time consistent.
- If you can’t fall sleep after 20 minutes in bed, do something calming such as reading or watching TV in another room until you become drowsy.
- Find ways to relax. A warm bath before bedtime, massage, soft music, breathing exercises, yoga, prayer or meditation can help prepare you for sleep.
- Naps can make it hard to fall asleep at night. Limit your nap to no more than 30 minutes and don’t nap after 3:00 pm.
- Make your bedroom comfortable for sleep by keeping your bedroom temperature comfortable. Limit distractions by using white noise and don’t keep a computer or TV in your bedroom.
- Get at least 20 or 30 minutes of vigorous exercise daily at least five to six hours before bedtime.
- Avoid or limit caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, large meals and beverages before sleep. A light snack or warm milk is fine but anything larger can interfere with sleep. Drink less before bedtime to avoid bathroom trips. If a painful condition keeps you awake make sure your pain reliever is effective enough to alleviate your pain.
- If you take medications regularly, check with your doctor to make sure that they are not contributing to the insomnia. If you have depression as well as insomnia you may need an antidepressant with a sedative effect. For children, you must consult a pediatrician, especially if they are on medications for other conditions.
- If none of these remedies work, you can try over the counter sleep aids. The most common ones tend to contain antihistamines- such as diphenyhydramine ( i.e. Benadryl®) that can make you feel drowsy. However, they can cause other side effects, such as dry mouth and blurred vision. Melatonin is another choice which may be useful for jet lag or for older adults.
- If over the counter agents don’t work, your doctor may prescribe prescription sleeping pills or cognitive behavior therapy — a special therapy which promotes sleep and relaxation. One shouldn’t generally rely on prescription sleeping pills for more than a few weeks because some can become habit forming
By following these simple suggestions, you should be able to finally get that peace and rest that you deserve during the holiday season and throughout the new year.
Dr. Joseph Sirven is a first-generation Cuban-American. He is Professor and Chairman of the Department of Neurology and was past Director of Education for Mayo Clinic Arizona. He is editor-in-chief of epilepsy.com and has served US and global governmental agencies including the Institute of Medicine, NASA, FAA, NIH and CDC.