It’s 2:00 a.m. You’ve been tossing and turning in bed for hours. You’re exhausted, but it seems like whatever you do—read a boring book, count sheep, breathe deeply—you just can’t fall asleep.
Almost everyone has experienced this. But while most people only deal with it for a few days (called transient insomnia), some people struggle with it constantly. It can be a vicious cycle: you can’t sleep, then you worry about not getting sleep, which makes it even more difficult to fall asleep!
This “chronic insomnia” can’t be solved with a warm glass of milk. It’s important to get to the root of the problem—and here are some of the most common culprits.
Stress hormones can affect your body’s ability to produce melatonin, which regulates your body clock. Your mind isn’t helping, either. You may be so agitated by a situation that you play it over and over in your head—desperately searching for solutions, worrying about the future, regretting the past. Since your body can’t tell the difference between a “real” emergency and an “imagined” emergency you’re in a perpetual adrenalin rush. Who can sleep when the world is falling apart?
Solution: Get a strong support system and look for stress management techniques. Yes, this seems obvious, but many people spend more time getting frustrated with their insomnia than looking for a way to handle the problem that caused it. Try this: instead of spending one hour tossing and turning in bed, get up and write in your journal. It may not put you to sleep right away, but it will make you feel better. (And, once you nod off, you will sleep sounder.)
For severe stress, consider seeing a counselor. Some will prescribe sleep medication so that you have the physical strength to cope with the emotional situation.
Some drugs that are used to relieve asthma, depression and high blood pressure contain chemicals that make it more difficult to fall asleep. There are also weight loss products that contain caffeine, or decongestants that contain pseudoephedrine (a stimulant).
Solution: Report your insomnia to your doctor and ask for an alternative medication.
3. Physical pain
Some illnesses and chronic conditions—Parkinson’s, arthritis, diabetes—can cause such discomfort that it’s difficult to settle down in bed. Many may fall asleep, but wake up in the middle of the night, then spend a lot of time trying to find a more comfortable position.
Solution: Talk to your doctor about pain medication, or explore homeopathic remedies and acupuncture.
4. Female hormones
Menopausal women may find it hard to fall asleep, because of low progesterone levels and fluctuating estrogen levels. The hot flashes can also cause discomfort.
Solution: Estrogen replacement therapy may help relieve discomfort.
Some habits obviously exacerbate insomnia (like an addiction to Starbucks). However, there are many things that can interfere with sleep patterns. This includes putting a television in the bedroom, exercising at night, eating a heavy dinner, or doing too much in the evening. This is very common among working professionals who have to cram housework after dinner, or regularly go out with friends. This routine has wired their body clock to remain active in the evening—even on days when they want to unwind.
Solution: Wind down in the evening, scheduling quieter and less physically or mentally stimulating activities towards the end of the day. It may be as simple as meeting your friends in a quiet café instead of the trendy bar, or switching your weekly exercise routine from tae-bo to yoga. (Once your sleeping patterns have normalized, you can sleep earlier and then wake up at dawn to do your tae-bo before work.)