Insomnia is defined as difficulty falling and/or staying asleep. There are different types of insomnia, but all insomnia involves some or all of the following symptoms:
- Trouble falling asleep
- Waking often throughout the night and difficulty falling back asleep once awake
- Waking too early in the morning
- Fatigue upon waking
Insomnia can be caused by a number of factors.
Primary insomnia is sleep difficulty that is not caused by some other health condition.
Secondary insomnia is sleep difficulty caused by health problems, medication, pain, or substance abuse.
Acute insomnia is short-term, lasting from one night to a maximum of a few weeks. It is often caused by temporary life stress, illness, poor sleep habits, certain medications, and major life changes.
Chronic insomnia is long-term and defined as sleep difficulty at least three nights a week for a month or more. The general causes of chronic are emotional disturbances such as anxiety or depression, chronic stress, and discomfort at night.
The treatments suggested for insomnia vary depending on the type that an individual is experiencing. For anyone experiencing insomnia, whether acute or chronic, practicing good sleep habits is recommended. These include:
- Setting a sleep schedule. Going to bed and waking up at the same time each day trains the body and the mind to get the proper amount of sleep. Avoiding naps helps to facilitate a set nightly sleep schedule at night.
- Avoiding stimulants such as caffeine and nicotine late in the day, as they can interrupt the ability to fall and remain asleep.
- Getting regular exercise helps relieve stress and make you more tired at bedtime. However, it is recommended that you avoid exercise or strenuous physical activity for at least three to four hours before bedtime, as exercise is a stimulating activity that will make it more difficult to fall asleep for several hours.
- Avoid heavy meals late in the day. A light snack of carbohydrates shortly before bedtime can help you fall and stay asleep throughout the night, but large, heavy meals can cause discomfort and interrupt deep, restful sleep.
- Create an environment that promotes sleep. Make sure that your bedroom is dark, quiet, and set at a comfortable temperature.
- Create a sleep routine. For the hour before bed, engage in relaxing activities such as reading, listening to music, taking a bath or light stretching. Wash your face, brush your teeth, and change into comfortable bed clothing. Having a regular routine before bedtime trains your mind to recognize that it’s about to go to sleep.
- Don’t use the bed for any activity other than sleep (or sex). Move the television out of the bedroom, avoid studying or reading in bed, and, if you have difficulty for more than an hour upon lying down, get out of bed to engage in a relaxing activity until you feel sleepy.
If practicing good sleep habits doesn’t alleviate your insomnia, there are medications available that promote sleep. These should be used in conjunction with good sleep habits. It is important to speak with a doctor to find out which prescription sleep aids will work best in your situation. There are non-addictive sleep aids available that will help you to fall and stay asleep without grogginess or fatigue the next day. Prescription sleep aids are generally recommended for short-term use while you adjust to practicing proper sleep habits. The use of over-the-counter chemical sleep aids is not recommended.
For those suffering with chronic insomnia, it is important to treat the underlying causes. Depression, anxiety, and chronic stress can be treated with cognitive-behavioral therapy that will teach you new coping skills for dealing with emotional disturbances. Physical effects of these emotional disorders and chronic pain can be treated with different medications. Speak with a healthcare provider if you believe that your insomnia is linked with a chronic emotional disturbance, serious physical pain, or a medical condition.