Can’t sleep? When to Worry

If you feel like you aren’t getting enough sleep at night, or you’re having difficulty falling asleep at night, you aren’t alone. About one third of American adults report that they usually get less than the recommended seven hours of sleep per night. But at what point do sleepless nights become something more serious? Here’s what you need to know about insomnia:

What is insomnia?

Insomnia is one of the most common sleep disorders, characterized by the inability to go to sleep or stay asleep. Insomnia can also show up as early morning awakening, with the inability to get back to sleep. It often interferes with daily routines, causing excessive daytime sleepiness.

Are there different types of insomnia?

If you’re dealing with a high level of stress, a traumatic or dramatic life event, or changes to your typical routine that throw off your sleep habits, you may be experiencing short-term insomnia. Short-term insomnia is what it sounds like: limited in duration.

Chronic insomnia typically lasts for three months or more. It’s often related to another issue or a combination of issues. When there is an underlying cause to insomnia, it’s categorized as secondary insomnia. Some medical conditions that make it harder to sleep, like arthritis or back pain, cause chronic insomnia. Respiratory disorders, anxiety, depression, substance use and chronic stress are also known causes.

A healthcare provider will rule out these and other potential causes of chronic insomnia, like side effects of medications or other previously undetected illness, before diagnosing primary insomnia. Primary insomnia is insomnia not caused by illness, disease, medical condition or environmental causes. Little is known about primary chronic insomnia, though treatment options overall are getting more diverse.

When should I seek treatment for insomnia?

Sleep deprivation can negatively affect your life. When that starts to happen, it’s time to seek help. For many people, chronic insomnia can be treated using a combination of behavioral therapies and lifestyle changes to help improve your sleep.

When you talk to your doctor, you might be asked to log your sleep for a week or two and keep track of how you feel during the day. Your doctor might refer you to a sleep center for overnight tests.

What is the treatment for insomnia?

There is no singular treatment for insomnia, but if can be effectively treated by a combination of behavioral therapy, lifestyle changes, and prescription medications. The American College of Physicians recommends cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) as a first-line treatment for chronic insomnia in adults.

Behavioral therapy includes relaxation techniques, methods to change thought patterns, and techniques for reducing anxiety and stress.

Lifestyle changes that promote good sleep habits are also used to treat insomnia and help you get a better night’s sleep. Here are a few good options:

  • Get into a sleep routine. Try going to bed and getting up at around the same time each night and morning. Avoid taking naps during the day.

  • Make your bedroom a place where sleep is possible. Buy a mattress that suits your sleep style and make sure you can create a dark, cool, and quiet place to sleep.

  • Don’t use screens before bed — phones, tablets, TV, or computers. The light emitted from tech devices can cause problems with your natural sleep cycle.

  • Put a hard deadline on your last coffee (or any caffeine source), or try to avoid caffeine altogether. Also, minimize how much alcohol you drink, as it can interfere with sleep quality.

  • Get moving. Exercise for 30 minutes per day.

Prescription medications should only be prescribed by your doctor after he or she has made a thorough evaluation. If your insomnia prevents you from functioning throughout the day, your doctor may prescribe medication for a limited period of time.

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