The experts have a lot to say about combating insomnia. But what do the insomniacs say? Here are some tips that have been tested by one.
If you’re like me, you’re still a little groggy from this weekend’s time change. That single hour lost to daylight savings is enough to throw off my sleep for a week.
I’ve had insomnia ever since I was a teenager. While Money Talks News has offered tips in Better Sleep on the Cheap, that was written by a writer who admits he sleeps quite well. For people like me who struggle with chronic insomnia – which is about 40 million Americans, according to the National Institutes of Health – there are only two options: pills or self-discipline. Beating insomnia without pills is a constant effort that requires some sacrifice.
But once you figure out what works for you and settle into a bedtime routine, you’ll barely notice the effort you put into maintaining a healthy sleep schedule. Plus, the payoff is more than worth it. Consider this from the American Academy of Sleep Medicine…
“Sleep is much more than a gentle ‘pause’ from your daily activities. It is an active state that helps maintain and renew your mental and physical health. Behind the curtain of sleep at night, your brain controls important functions that set the stage for the next day. Muscles are repaired. Breathing, heart rate, blood pressure and hormone levels are regulated. New information is processed, and memories are formed.”
And this from the National Sleep Foundation…
“The evidence that sleep deprivation adversely affects cognition and motor performance is striking. One study [published in the Western Journal of Medicine] showed that people who were awake for up to 19 hours scored substantially worse on performance and alertness than those who were legally intoxicated.”
“A growing body of medical evidence links inadequate sleep with anger, anxiety, and sadness. University of Pennsylvania researchers found that when study subjects were only allowed to sleep 4.5 hours a night for one week, they reported feeling more stressed, angry, sad, and mentally exhausted, with overall scores for mood and vigor declining steadily during the test period. When the subjects were allowed to get enough sleep, their mood scores improved dramatically.”
So here are the best tips I’ve learned in 20 years of fighting insomnia. Just keep in mind that not everything works for everyone. Your insomnia antidote may be a variation of the next person’s.
1. Start at the doctor’s office. It’s critical that you see a doctor about your insomnia. I know this sounds like a bunch of mumbo-jumbo designed to line your doctor’s pocket, but if you don’t rule out or treat any underlying medical condition, trying to fix the insomnia yourself could prove a waste of time and money. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, both mental and physical disorders can cause insomnia – anxiety, mood disorders, allergies, arthritis, cancer, heart disease, and hyperthyroidism, to name a few.
2. Exercise. Yeah, I know. You’ve heard this a hundred times before. But that’s probably because the research supporting this tip spans decades. And just moderate-intensity exercise a few days a week is enough to make a big difference. I know it can be hard to fit exercise into your schedule, but remember that you’ll be better equipped to make it through the day after a better night’s rest. Just don’t exercise too late in the day. “Exercise stimulates the body to secrete the stress hormone cortisol, which helps activate the alerting mechanism in the brain,” says Harvard Medical School. They recommend avoiding exercise within three hours of sleep, though some experts say four.
(For those of you who would point out that a few studies have shown that exercise doesn’t necessarily improve sleep: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Even if exercise doesn’t improve your sleep, experts like the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the Mayo Clinic say it will improve plenty of other aspects of your life – like your weight, sex drive, productivity, and life expectancy. Besides, those improvements could very well lead to a better night’s rest.)
3. Take a hot bath before bed. I’ve always found a hot shower relaxing, but there’s more to this tip. It’s actually a drop in body temperature that signals the body that it’s time for sleep, causing you to fall asleep faster and sleep more soundly, says Stanford University. Because a hot bath raises your body temperature, getting out of the bath begins a lowering of your temperature. Stanford therefore suggests scheduling your bath 90 minutes before bedtime.
4. Put your computer to bed early. This is a biggie for me – and a growing number of Americans, according to the National Sleep Foundation’s 2011 sleep survey. From WebMD in 2003 to CNN in 2010, it’s been reported that the bright light from the screens on your TV, computer, and smartphone can delay your ability to fall asleep and upset your biological clock. I don’t know about the latter, but if I work on my laptop until the time I get in bed, my brain can’t relax. It’s in still work mode even though my body is ready for sleep mode. For a while, I tried playing Words with Friends on my phone when I couldn’t fall asleep, but that just further delayed falling asleep. I’ve learned that if I don’t close my laptop, turn off the TV, and set down my phone two hours before I want to fall asleep, I’m guaranteed to toss and turn for hours.
5. Do your “chores” before bed. The tasks may be a little different for you, but the goal is the same. For example, I tidy up my bedroom, because if I wake up in the middle of the night to a neat room, it’s easier to fall right back to sleep. (The last thing I need at 3 a.m. is to be reminded of the pile of laundry in the corner.) Then I make a to-do list for the next day and even keep pen and paper in my nightstand in case I remember a to-do item as I’m trying to fall asleep. (I’ve learned to write in the dark so I don’t have to turn any lights on.) And right before I climb into bed, I go to the bathroom and turn my clock away from my bed – no sense being reminded what time it is while I’m trying to fall back asleep.
6. Really get comfy. A lot of sleep advice talks about cushy pillows, good mattresses, and a comfortable temperature. But those are no-brainers. Just as important are light and sound. We sleep best in complete darkness. Get black-out drapes if you have to. (I go so far as to unplug my cell phone charger to eliminate the little red light.) Sound is up to you. Eliminate noises that may interfere with your sleep but not ones that help. I make sure my window is shut so the birds don’t wake me at the crack of dawn, but I turn on my fan because the white noise helps me sleep. For more tips, check out the National Sleep Foundation‘s thorough article about sleep environments.
7. Establish a bedtime routine. This is another piece of sleep advice that sounds stupid but really helps. Tips 3, 4, and 5 are part of my routine, but different people add different things to their routine. I like to read a book or magazine before bed, but you may like listening to relaxing music. The most important thing is simply having some sort of routine and starting it the same time each night. This conditions your body, “programming” it to associate the routine with winding down in preparation for sleep.
8. Get up and go to bed at the same time each day. This too conditions your body. For insomniacs, though, the second part can be impossible. When I need to set my biological clock straight, I focus on the first half: Insomniacs can’t always control when they fall asleep, but we can control when we get up, even if we have to force ourselves out of bed after a few hours of sleep. Over time, getting out of bed at the same time causes you to become tired around the same time at night.
9. Take advantage of sunlight, especially in the morning. Exposing yourself to it early in the day will help regulate your biological clock. For me, though, this tip conflicts with tip No. 6: When I sleep with my curtains open – which helps me wake up naturally in the morning – the street light near my window makes it impossible to sleep in darkness. So I splurged on a wake-up light (one of these), which gradually lights up in the morning at whatever time I set it for, sort of like an alarm clock.
10. Say no to naps. I know people who can nap and have no trouble getting to sleep at night, but naps are an insomniac’s worst enemy. Some research says that a brief nap of 20 to 30 minutes is OK, but that’s not true for me.
11. Say no to caffeine. I know people who can drink a coke at 10 p.m. and still fall right to sleep at bedtime. But if you’re an insomniac, it’s just not worth the risk. Plus, if you do eliminate or cut back on caffeine, your body will become more sensitive to it. I’ll lie wide awake at bedtime even if I drink half a coke at 10 a.m. And don’t forget that caffeine lurks in chocolate and some teas.
12. Stay out of bed. Your bed should be used only for sleep and sex. This helps your body and mind associate your bed exclusively with sleep. If you sit in bed on your laptop like I used to do, you’re asking for insomnia.
13. Stay out of your bedroom. Ideally, your entire bedroom should be used only for sleep and sex. That means no desk and no TV. Of course, not everyone has a spare bedroom they can turn into an office or a lounge. But don’t write this tip off entirely. For example, if you have no choice but have your office space in your bedroom, create a zone for work and at least consider moving the TV elsewhere. Do what you can.
What doesn’t work
14. Warm milk. According to WebMD, the truth to this sleeping aide is primarily psychological. If it helps you get to sleep, it’s probably because it’s part of your bedtime routine, not because of milk’s properties.
15. Alcohol. A nightcap can indeed help you fall asleep, but because it doesn’t stay in your blood all night, it can also cause you to sleep less soundly and wake up more often during the night. When I used to work in a doctor’s office, I met a patient who tried to treat her insomnia with wine. The only thing she got out of it was alcoholism. She had to be weaned off.
Karla Bowsher worked as a medical office administrator for 10 years. She now runs our Deals page and covers consumer, retail, and health issues. If you have a comment, suggestion, or question, leave a comment or contact her at [email protected].