Insomnia symptoms include the following:
- Difficulty falling asleep or getting back to sleep when awakened
- Fragmented sleep—waking frequently during the night or waking earlier than desired
- Unrefreshing sleep
- Fatigue, drowsiness, inability to concentrate, irritability and mood shifts from a lack of sleep
What If You Do Nothing about Insomnia?
Occasional insomnia is nothing to worry about. And remember that there are wide individual differences in how much sleep people need to feel refreshed and alert. Some need nine or ten hours, others only six.
Also, don’t worry that you have to “make up” every hour of lost sleep. One good night will usually repair the fatigue.
Home Remedies for Insomnia
If you have an underlying disorder, or if insomnia is the result of medication you are taking, you need to consult your doctor. But when there is no underlying cause, rather than reach for sleeping medications, try the following self-help measures. Several studies have shown that in many, if not most, instances of insomnia, such steps are more effective at treating the problem than prescription sleeping pills.
- Don't drink alcohol before bedtime—and don't smoke. Alcohol can disrupt sleep patterns and make insomnia worse. Nicotine makes you wakeful, too.
- Avoid eating a heavy meal in the evening, particularly at bedtime. Don't drink large amounts of liquids before retiring.
- Eliminate caffeinated beverages, except in the morning or early afternoon.
- Unless you’re older, try to avoid daytime naps. It's all right to use a nap for catching up on occasional lost sleep, but naps should'’t become a substitute for sleep, even if you're tired. Naps probably can be beneficial for older people whose sleep is fragmented—and certainly it’s better to nap than to rely on sleeping pills.
- Spend an hour or more relaxing before you retire. Read, listen to music, watch TV, or take a warm bath.
- Go to bed and get up on a regular schedule. Get into bed at the appointed time even if you're not tired, and arise for the day on schedule no matter how much you haven't slept.
- If you can't sleep, get up and do something. If you've gotten into bed and after 20 minutes still can't sleep, get up and read or do some other quiet activity for a short time. However, don't bring work into bed with you; go somewhere else to do it. If you wake up in the middle of the night and can't fall back to sleep, try reading for a bit. Counting sheep (or flowers or whatever appeals to you) or reconstructing a happy event or narrative in your mind may also lull you to sleep.
- Try to correct any stress that’s keeping you awake. If your sleeplessness arises from worry or grief, it may be hard to return to your regular sleeping schedule until you’ve done something to relieve the problem. If you can’t do anything about the situation right away on your own, try confiding in a friend, joining a support group, or finding a qualified counselor.
Beyond Home Remedies: When To Call Your Doctor
If chronic insomnia persists for more than a week or two after you have tried self-help measures, you should see a doctor or visit a sleep disorders clinic for a professional evaluation. Stress, an underlying medical condition, or a medication you are taking may be the cause of your sleep problem. In addition, while increasingly fragmented sleep in many older people may be normal, it can also result from a specific sleep disorder such as sleep apnea, a potentially dangerous condition that requires medical diagnosis and treatment.
What Your Doctor Will Do
Your doctor will ask you about your sleeping routine and possible sources of stress in your life, and about medications or other substances (including alcohol) that might interfere with your sleep.
For short-term treatment, your doctor may prescribe a sleeping medication. For elusive or persistent sleep disorders, you may be referred to a sleep disorders clinic, where a detailed evaluation of your sleeping and waking patterns can be obtained. Treatment may entail behavioral strategies such as relaxation training and restricting your sleeping time, and medication may also be recommended. Many major medical centers have such clinics; evaluation and treatment is often covered by health insurance.
The Complete Home Wellness Handbook
John Edward Swartzberg, M.D., F.A.C.P., Sheldon Margen, M.D., and the editors of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter
Updated by Remedy Health Media