The Insomnia Guide

A guide to help you overcome insomnia for a better nights sleep.

By Abby Wood

The incidence of insomnia is increasing in epidemic proportions around the world and especially in the U.S. According to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, Google searches in the U.S. for insomnia increased by 58 percent during the first five months of 2020 (no doubt COVID-19 related) compared with the same months from the previous three years. Even more interesting is that the number of queries peaked around 3 a.m., when most people should be engaged in deep slumber.

Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder, affecting between 50-70 percent of Americans. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), insomnia is defined as difficulty falling asleep or waking during the night, waking during the night and having trouble falling back to sleep, or experiencing non-restorative sleep despite having adequate opportunity to sleep. 

Insomnia can either be acute, lasting from one night to a few weeks. Or it can be chronic, occurring at least three nights per week for three months or more. Short-term insomnia can cause excessive daytime sleepiness, and affect your memory and concentration. Long-term insomnia puts you at greater risk for high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.

Factors That Contribute to Insomnia

“Although there are many initial triggers for sleep problems as there are people in the world, chronic insomnia is perpetuated by three factors: sleep drive disruption, body clock disruption, and high levels of arousal,” says Martin Reed, a certified sleep health education and founder of Insomnia Coach

These factors are affected by various situations, including: 

  • Changes in hormones due to conditions such as pregnancy or menopause
  • Irregular schedules due to working night shifts or pulling all-nighters to study for exams
  • Substances such as caffeine, alcohol, or nicotine
  • Emotional factors such as stress, depression, and anxiety
  • Even your sleep environment can have a negative impact on your sleep if it is too noisy, your bedroom is too hot or cold, or your mattress is uncomfortable

When you’re lying in bed late at night trying desperately to fall asleep, getting a good night’s sleep may seem like an unattainable dream. But it is not impossible. By making a few lifestyle changes, you can learn to break the chains of insomnia. 

Ways to Beat Insomnia

If you’re struggling with insomnia, Dan Ford, a sleep psychologist with The Better Sleep Clinic, has some words of encouragement: “Accept that poor nights of sleep happen to everyone and understand that sleep quality is more important than sleep quantity.”  A knee-jerk reaction to a poor night of sleep is to “catch up” on sleep by going to bed early or sleeping in, he says. “But this makes insomnia worse. Your body will naturally correct for a poor night of sleep by giving you deeper sleep, and thus better sleep quality, the next night,” he says.  One of the most important things you can do to improve your sleep is to maintain a regular bedtime and wake time. This will help regulate your body clock which will boost your energy and mood and help fight fatigue, he adds. 
_wp_attachment_image_alt

Another way to overcome insomnia is to address sleep hygiene issues. For example:

  • Avoid stimulants: Avoid foods and substances like coffee and cigarettes too close to bedtime. They contain stimulants like caffeine and nicotine, which can interfere with sleep. 
  • Avoid alcohol: “Many people consume alcohol in the evenings because it helps them fall asleep,” says Dr. Candice Seti, The Insomnia Therapist. “In fact, it does just the opposite. Alcohol is a depressant, but because it is metabolized in our body during sleep, it actually interferes with our sleep quality and keeps us from getting the deep, restorative sleep that we need to feel fresh and rested the next day.”
  • Natural sleep aids: Before you try over-the-counter or prescription sleeping pills, consider natural sleep aids, such as dietary supplements like melatonin.
  • Consider using sleeping pills temporarily: “In some cases, where people are experiencing sleep disorders due to their deteriorating mental health, help is sought through the use of medications,” says Dr. Mubashar Rehman, editor at HealthCreeds.com. “Although meds like sleeping pills are helpful, they are not advisable long term. They are a temporary relief that can cause dependence and ruin the body’s natural response to sleep.”
  • Limit screen time: Electronics like smartphones, TVs, and tablets emit blue light that stimulates the brain and makes it difficult to fall asleep. Turning off the electronics “forces our brain to slow down and stops the flood of dopamine we get whenever we see something new or exciting on social media platforms,” Dr. Rehman says.
  • Create a relaxing evening routine: Help your body and your mind wind down at the end of the day by doing yoga, relaxation exercises, or meditating before bedtime. Or, take a warm bath. 
  • Improve your sleep environment: Set your thermostat a few degrees cooler at night than you have it during the day, and block out any light with room darkening shades. “Comfortable bedding and a good mattress is crucial for a good sleep,” Dr. Manzoor says. But also, be sure that you’re reserving your bed for sleep and sex only. Save the TV watching and book reading for the family room.

When to Seek Professional Help

When insomnia becomes chronic, it’s time to get to the source of what’s keeping you up at night. “Get your symptoms checked by your medical healthcare provider” to rule out any medical causes, suggests sleep medicine specialist and pulmonologist Dr. Shazli Manzoor, “because insomnia varies from person to person.” A medical professional can help identify whether medications or an underlying health issue may be contributing to your poor sleep. 

If the problem isn’t medical, it could be emotional in nature, caused by anxiety, depression, or stress. A mental health professional may be needed to help you process your emotions. “Get science-backed treatment with cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBTi) from a sleep psychologist or behavioral sleep medicine specialist,” Ford says. 

“It may sound self-serving, but research shows that chronic insomnia does not tend to spontaneously remit,” he says. “Many of my clients have had insomnia for over 10 years, which research also shows is around the time it takes for someone to finally get professional treatment with a sleep specialist. That means they have literally tried everything.”

Final Thoughts 

Lying in bed at night unable to sleep is a miserable feeling, contributing to excessive daytime sleepiness and moodiness in the short-term, and a host of medical problems if it becomes a chronic problem. But don’t feel hopeless. By taking action and changing some lifestyle habits, you can greatly improve your quality of sleep. If you’re still struggling, consult with a medical or mental health professional. Because everyone deserves a good night’s sleep.