You know the story: It's 5:00 A.M., and the first traces of dawn have begun to appear in the nighttime sky. You've been awake since 2:00 A.M. and are beginning to feel hopeless. How will you function at work tomorrow (make that today)? How will you cope with your presentation at the board meeting? How will you make it through another day after yet another night without sleep?
Adults need an average of seven to nine hours of sleep a night, but insomnia can keep them from getting the sleep they need. Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder in North America and Europe. A whopping one-third of the U.S. population cannot sleep well enough to function well during the day. Half of those people have only one or two bad nights a week. The other half spend countless sleepless nights tossing and turning, feeling miserable. They also spend countless days exhausted.
Insomnia can have a significant impact on your health. People with insomnia are
- Four times more likely to be diagnosed with depression.
- More likely to have a serious illness, including heart disease.
- More likely to have an accident on the job, at home, or on the road.
- More likely to miss work and accomplish less on the job than well-rested coworkers.
Insomnia is also one of the least-understood sleep disorders. However, sleep experts have come up with many tried-and-true ways to relieve insomnia. The results of their work appear in the remedies on the next pages. Try them out, and see what works for you.
If they don't help, consult your doctor for a recommendation for a sleep clinic near you, or contact the National Sleep Foundation (www.sleepfoundation.org or 202-347-3472) for a referral to a sleep specialist.
But you may be surprised at the simple steps you can take to get a good night's sleep. Move on to the next page to learn home remedies to treat insomnia.
1: Get Comfortable
Sleep may elude you if your bed is too hard or too soft, or if your pillows aren't just right. Sometimes, insomnia is can also be caused by being awakened repeatedly by loud noises. Often, the sleeper is not aware of what awakened them.
Try sleeping in a quieter room, or wear earplugs. The best sleep environment is one that is dark, quiet, comfortable, and cool, according to the National Sleep Foundation. You should also use your bedroom only for sleep and sex. No work, no eating, no television, and no arguing with your bed partner.
2: Limit Caffeine and Alcohol
Although alcohol can make you feel drowsy and may actually put you to sleep, it has the unpleasant side effect of waking you up later on in the night with a headache, stomachache, or full bladder. In addition, once alcohol's sedative effect wears off, there's a rebound effect that actually makes you more likely to have trouble falling back to sleep.
Caffeine, on the other hand, stimulates your brain. Limit your coffee intake to two cups a day. Starting at noon, consume no foods or beverages that contain caffeine.
3: Keep a Normal Schedule
Perhaps the most important rule for people with insomnia is to keep a strict sleep-wake schedule, even on weekends. If you can't sleep one night, get up at your usual time the next morning and don't take any naps. If you nap, you'll have more trouble getting to sleep the next night, thereby compounding your insomnia. It's best to let yourself get good and sleepy so that it will be easier to get to sleep the next night.
4: Establish a Bed Time Ritual
When mothers bathe their children or read to them every night before bedtime, they are reinforcing a signal that it's time to settle down and get ready for sleep. Establishing such a ritual may also be helpful for adults. A hot bath taken two hours before bedtime is a wonderful way to relax your body and make it ready for sleep. For most people, taking a bath closer to bedtime may be stimulating and may delay sleep (of course, there are always exceptions, so experiment with the timing if you need to). For an added benefit, Naturopathic practitioners recommend adding one to two cups Epsom salts to a hot bath and soak for about 15 to 20 minutes before hitting the hay.
5: Try a Little Sugar
You should finish eating two or three hours before bedtime. However, that comforting nighttime snack of milk and cookies may be just what the doctor ordered to get you back in bed. Sugary foods eaten about 30 minutes before bedtime can actually act as a sedative, and you can wake up without the morning fuzziness that accompanies synthetic sleeping pills.
Honey has the same sedative effect as sugar and may get you to bed more quickly. Try adding 1 tablespoon honey to some decaffeinated herbal tea or even to your warm milk for a relaxing pre-sleep drink.
6: Have a Bedtime Snack
Drinking a glass of milk, especially a glass of warm milk, before bedtime is an age-old treatment for sleeping troubles. Some scientists believe it's the presence of tryptophan, a chemical that helps the brain ease into sleep mode, that does the trick. Whatever the reason, milk seems to help some people hit the sack more easily. And warm milk seems to be more effective at relaxing body and mind. However, if you wake frequently to urinate, avoid liquids for a few hours before bedtime. Other foods high on the tryptophan scale are cottage cheese, cashews, chicken, turkey, soybeans, and tuna.
Some experts believe a tryptophan deficiency can cause problems with sleep. Made from tryptophan, 5-HTP helps the body make serotonin. Low levels of serotonin are a known factor in sleepless nights. Taking a 5-HTP supplement may be a benefit if your body has low levels of tryptophan. How do you know if you're low? Low levels of tryptophan are most common in people who are depressed. If your insomnia is associated with depression, it might be a good question to ask your doctor. In one study, 100 mg of the supplement was enough to make sleep longer and better.
Melatonin is the timekeeper of the body. It's a hormone that regulates your biological clock. As you get older you make less melatonin, which experts believe is probably why older folks have more trouble sleeping. Research is showing that taking a melatonin supplement can help you sleep. Ask your doctor about taking 1 to 3 mg of melatonin 11/2 to 2 hours before bedtime.
Valerian is a staple medicinal herb used throughout Europe. And, unlike benzodiazepines, using valerian to treat insomnia increases the amount of time spent in deep and rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Valerian contains chemicals with strong muscle-relaxant and sedative properties called valepotriates. All parts of the plant contain these chemicals, but they are most concentrated in the roots. Ironically, even valerian preparations without valepotriates have helped some people to fall asleep, raising the possibility that some still unidentified chemical, or a reaction amongst various compounds in the root, may produce a calming effect.
10: Keep a Sleep Journal
There is no one formula for perfect sleep -- different things work for different people. The important thing is to give everything a fair and persistent trial (for at least a week or two, not just one night) and see what works best for you. Keep a sleep log, a notebook of what works and what doesn't.
There's no magic trick to treating insomnia, but some of the home remedies outlined here might just be the recipe you need to get back to sleep.
For more information about sleep and sleep disorders, see the links on the next page.
Lots More Information
- 9 Most Common Sleep Disorders
- 9 Tips to Stop Snoring
- 10 Tips for Better Sleep
- 5 Reasons Why You Dream
- 20 Universal Dream Themes
ABOUT THE AUTHORS:Timothy Gower is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in many publications, including Reader's Digest, Prevention, Men's Health, Better Homes and Gardens, The New York Times, and The Los Angeles Times. The author of four books, Gower is also a contributing editor for Health magazine.Alice Lesch Kelly is a health writer based in Boston. Her work has been published in magazines such as Shape, Fit Pregnancy, Woman's Day, Reader's Digest, Eating Well, and Health. She is the co-author of three books on women's health.Linnea Lundgren has more than 12 years experience researching, writing, and editing for newspapers and magazines. She is the author of four books, including Living Well With Allergies.
Michele Price Mann is a freelance writer who has written for such publications as Weight Watchers and Southern Living magazines. Formerly assistant health and fitness editor at Cooking Light magazine, her professional passion is learning and writing about health.
ABOUT THE CONSULTANTS:
Ivan Oransky, M.D., is the deputy editor of The Scientist. He is author or co-author of four books, including The Common Symptom Answer Guide, and has written for publications including the Boston Globe, The Lancet, and USA Today. He holds appointments as a clinical assistant professor of medicine and as adjunct professor of journalism at New York University.
David J. Hufford, Ph.D., is university professor and chair of the Medical Humanities Department at Pennsylvania State University's College of Medicine. He also is a professor in the departments of Neural and Behavioral Sciences and Family and Community Medicine. Dr. Hufford serves on the editorial boards of several journals, including Alternative Therapies in Health & Medicine and Explore.