For most people, drifting cozily off to sleep at night is the most relaxing and pleasant part of the day. But for anyone who suffers from insomnia - having difficulty falling to sleep or staying asleep, or waking too early - it isn't that easy. And there are a lot of you out there. According to a Statistics Canada survey, an estimated 3.3 million Canadians aged 15 or older (about one in seven people) suffer from insomnia. That's worrisome, because lack of sleep can have serious consequences: it may make people unable to concentrate or perform optimally at work, it may weaken the immune system, and it can cause fatal vehicle accidents when individuals become so exhausted they fall asleep behind the wheel. For these reasons it is important to seek the advice of your doctor, who can help determine the cause of your insomnia and suggest ways to overcome it.
• Find the cause. Insomnia is often a symptom of another problem, so in order to get a good night's rest you'll likely have to solve the underlying issue(s) first. Individuals may have difficulty getting to sleep because of depression or anxiety, restless leg syndrome, obstructive sleep apnea, damage to the hypothalamus, or side effects from certain medications (such as stimulants or diuretics). Other more obvious causes of insomnia include jet lag caused by air travel or changes in shift work. By removing the cause of the insomnia (for example, by receiving psychological treatment for emotional distress), sleep should follow naturally.
• Improve sleep habits. You'd be amazed at how quickly you can solve your sleep problems by following a few simple steps:
- Go to bed and get up at the same time each day (even on weekends, if possible). You'll eventually train your body to know instinctively when it's time to rest.
- Follow a "bedtime routine." Take a warm bath or read a book before turning in each night. This repetitive action will also send a signal to your body that it's ready to sleep.
- Stop watching the clock. Seeing the minutes ticking away will only serve to increase your frustration, keeping you awake longer.
- Can't sleep? Get up! After giving it the good ol' college try for a half hour, get up and do something relaxing for about 20 minutes before going back to bed.
• Get your worries out. Don't plough through your day and reserve the nighttime for worrying about or planning for tomorrow. Reserve time each day to think through the issues that are troubling you and make a plan toward eliminating, or at least lessening, that worry.
• What to avoid before bed: Drinking lots of fluids or eating a large meal close to bedtime can cause problems going to sleep and staying asleep. Avoid beverages that contain caffeine and if you're a smoker, don't smoke before going to bed; caffeine and nicotine are stimulants, which will surely hamper your sleep schedule. And although alcohol may help you get to sleep initially, it does not produce a restful sleep.
• Be cautious with sleeping pills. Many medications claim to offer help with falling asleep. While these drugs can work well under certain circumstances, they can cause problems. Sleeping pills can become less effective the longer you use them, meaning your body will require increased doses as time goes on. Some sleep aids can also lead to dependency - a dangerous situation that should be avoided. Therefore, sleeping pills should be taken under the guidance of your doctor.
• Consider herbal remedies. Some alternative medicines have long been hailed as effective ways of overcoming insomnia. One in particular, called melatonin, is widely used to help people fall asleep and stay asleep. Melatonin is a hormone that helps regulate the circadian rhythm (our internal biological clock) and already occurs naturally in the body. Despite this natural occurrence, taking melatonin can be dangerous for some individuals. For this reason, you should consult your doctor prior to trying it out.
• Add a little white noise. Who would have thought that noise could help you sleep - as opposed to keeping you awake? Constant sounds such as rain falling on a roof or waves lapping on a beach can block out other sounds that might otherwise wake you. The simple hum of a fan in your bedroom can achieve this level of white noise, or you may visit www.simplynoise.com to download soothing sounds!
What helps you fall asleep at night? Leave your suggestions in the comments box, above right.