Insomnia Causes...And Cures Everyone Can Try!

If you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, you’re not alone.  More than 60 million Americans struggle with insomnia. Insomnia negatively impacts people’s quality of life, ability to focus, and work productivity.  Getting seven hours or less of sleep each night also diminishes immune system functioning by up to 35%. And when sleep-deprived people get behind the wheel, their sleepiness makes them as dangerous as drivers who are intoxicated, causing up to 100,000 traffic accidents each year.

Here are common causes and cures for this common condition.

CAUSES

Before we can address cures of insomnia, it’s helpful to understand the causes of insomnia. The causes of insomnia fall into two categories: Primary and Secondary.

1) Primary insomnia means that there’s no underlying medical condition, anatomical abnormality or medication side effect that’s causing the insomnia.  Causes of primary insomnia include jet lag, shift work, emotional distress, caring for small children and lack of a regular sleep schedule.

2) Secondary insomnia indicates there is an underlying issue, and insomnia is a symptom of that condition.  Causes of secondary insomnia include ingesting too much caffeine (or other stimulants), depression, dementia, restless leg syndrome, hyperthyroidism, hormonal imbalances and sleep apnea.

CURES

1) Keep a sleep log.

You can download a simple sleep log (like this one from the National Sleep Foundation)  that helps you track what time you go to sleep, how many times you woke up during the night (and how long each awakening lasted), and what time you woke up in the morning.  Keeping a log helps you track patterns, and it can help you understand what factors lead to more (or less) restful sleep. If your insomnia persists in spite of your best efforts, taking a sleep log with you to your doctor’s appointment helps a sleep specialist have a better picture of exactly what you mean when you say you’re having trouble sleeping, and leads to a more accurate diagnosis and treatment plan for your insomnia.

2) Create a bedtime routine.

Research shows that up to 40% of our daily actions are habits, meaning they’re ingrained behaviors that happen without much effort because we do the same thing at the same time in the same way each day.  Sleep works best when you make it a regular habit as well. Sleep experts recommend beginning to wind down 30-60 minutes before you plan to fall asleep. Taking a hot shower or bath, listening to soothing music, turning down the lights, meditating and reading a relaxing book are all great ways to signal to your body and your brain that it’s time to leave the day’s busyness behind and head toward a restful night of sleep.

3) Follow a set sleep schedule.

Quality sleep often comes from following a set schedule.  Sleep specialists recommend going to bed at the same time every night, and setting your alarm to wake up at the same time each morning.  That means even if you’re tempted to stay up and work on a project or scroll through Pinterest until 2 a.m., choose to go to bed at your scheduled bedtime anyway.  

And if you’re tempted to sleep in because you had a fitful night of sleep, or because it’s the weekend, choose to get out of bed when your alarm goes off no matter how tired you feel.  By following the same sleep schedule, regardless of how you feel, your brain is more likely to get used to a healthy sleep rhythm that leads to uninterrupted, restorative rest.

4) Make light work for you, not against you.

Melatonin is a hormone your brain secretes to regulate your sleep schedule.  Production of melatonin increases in the late afternoon and early evening, so by the time you’re ready for bed, there’s enough melatonin to transition your brain from awake to asleep.  During the night, your body metabolizes the melatonin and, as the level falls, you begin to awaken the following morning.

Melatonin production is affected by light.  The less light you’re exposed to, the higher the production of melatonin.  The more light you’re exposed to, the less melatonin your body produces. Now that you know about the relationship between light and melatonin, you can make light work for you, not against you!  In the evening, dim the overhead lights and limit the time you spend looking at TV, computer and phone screens. This will help your brain produce more of the sleep-inducing hormone you need to get quality rest.  In the morning, open the curtains and turn on the lights in your bedroom, signaling your brain to stop producing melatonin so you can be alert for the day ahead.

5) Try natural remedies.

While there are prescription-strength sleep aids that are sometimes necessary to treat persistent insomnia, research has identified several natural remedies that are safe, effective, and non-habit forming.  As part of your bedtime routine, try a cup of chamomile or valerian tea, or drink a glass of tart cherry juice to see if these natural sleep remedies work for you!

6) Consult a sleep expert.

If you’ve followed the above steps and still have difficulty sleeping, or if you have symptoms like restless legs or snoring, a consultation with a sleep expert is imperative.  (Remember to take your sleep log with you when you go to the appointment!)

Specialists can perform sleep studies and other evaluations to determine what the underlying cause of your insomnia is, and work with you to find the treatment that helps you fall asleep, stay asleep, and get the restorative rest you need to live a healthy, happy life!  

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At Golden Gate Urgent Care, our six Bay Area locations work seven days a week to care for you!  Make an appointment or simply walk in if you or a loved one needs medical care.

Author
Sarah Thebarge MMSc, PA-C Sarah Thebarge earned her physician assistant degree at Yale School of Medicine, and then studied journalism at Columbia School of Journalism. She has been a physician assistant and a freelance journalist since 2004. In addition to caring for patients at Golden Gate Urgent Care, Sarah frequently volunteers her medical skills in the developing world. Her writing has appeared in Huffington Post, USA Today and National Geographic, and her blog was featured on MSNBC.com. She is the author of the memoir The Invisible Girls and the upcoming book WELL: Healing our Beautiful, Broken World from a Hospital in West Africa. She currently lives in the Mission District of San Francisco.

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