Trouble sleeping, or insomnia, is a problem many people share. Sleep is important to health, mood, concentration and the ability to handle stress for children and teens as well as for adults. Most people, at some time, will experience problems with sleep—either difficulty with falling asleep, staying asleep, or waking up too early. Sometimes the problem is for a short time, when we are dealing with a stressful situation, but sometimes it can be chronic, lasting weeks, months or even years. Many things can contribute to sleep problems—habits, changing sleep and work schedules as well as certain medical and mental health conditions. Today I would like to let you know about natural things you can do to help you to sleep better, as well as when you should seek medical attention for insomnia.
Most adults require 7-8 hours of sleep, and children and teens require 9-10 hours of sleep per night. There are a few people who naturally need less. The important thing to ask yourself is whether you feel tired, foggy headed or have trouble concentrating during the day with the amount of sleep you get. If you feel well, you are probably getting enough sleep.
So, what can you do to help you to fall and to stay asleep?
Turn off all screens at least 90 minutes before bedtime—TV, cellphone, computer, tablet. The blue light that screens give off interferes with brain waves that help our brains relax.
Avoid caffeine past 2:00 p.m. Caffeine is found in coffee, black and green tea, as well as many sodas. If you need an afternoon energy boost, try a brisk 10 minute walk instead.
Speaking of exercise, it helps us to sleep, but not if done too close to bedtime. Try to get your workout or walk done at least 3 hours before you plan to sleep. Sometimes gentle stretching before bed can help us relax.
Have your last meal of the day 2-3 hours before bedtime. A full stomach can make it hard to fall asleep. And, avoid alcohol before bed—it may help you fall asleep, but it disrupts deep sleep, and may wake up in the middle of the night.
White noise, such as a fan or air conditioner can help adults and especially children to fall asleep. There are several free apps you can download onto your cellphone. My favorite is one with relaxing nature sounds.
Go to bed and get up at the same time every day. Having a different sleep schedule can mix up your body’s ability to fall and to stay asleep. Humans also sleep best in a dark, cool room. Too much light or heat makes it hard to fall asleep and stay asleep.
Make sure you are taking your medications at the right time, as some may make it difficult to fall asleep. Check with your provider if you have questions about when the right time is.
One thing many people tell me is that thoughts run around in their heads when they try to sleep. It can help to write down all the things that are on your mind, and tell yourself that they will be there in the morning. They do not have to be dealt with tonight. If you have trouble relaxing, it can help to do what’s called “progressive relaxation”. Start by taking 3-5 deep breaths, right from your belly. Then imagine relaxing your toes. Then relax your feet and ankles, then your lower legs. Keep moving up, relaxing each part of your body. If other thoughts come into your head, acknowledge them, imagine them floating away, then go back to relaxing each part of your body. Chances are that you will fall asleep before reaching your head.
What about herbs or over the counter medications to help with sleep? There is good evidence that chamomile tea can help people to fall asleep. Be careful, though, if you have an allergy to ragweed, as you may have a reaction to chamomile, too. There is little evidence that valerian root or lemon balm help significantly with sleep. Herbal preparations do not usually work well in the first few days, but work best when taken over two or more weeks. Melatonin can help if you have jetlag , work night shifts or have low melatonin, but it will not help everyone. Diphenhydramine, or benadryl, which is the ingredient in any “p.m.” medication such as Tylenol P.M. or Nyquil, may help you to fall asleep, but should not be used for children under age 12, and should be used with caution if you are over age 65. It may interact with many medications, so check with your provider before taking it if you are taking prescription medications.
So, when do you need to seek medical attention for sleep problems? Chronic insomnia is when a person has trouble falling, staying or awakening too early from sleep 3 or more times a week for 3 or more months at a time. If you have chronic insomnia, it is wise to seek medical advice. Common medical problems that contribute to chronic insomnia include diabetes, COPD or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, hypertension (high blood pressure), heart disease and chronic pain. Mental health issues such as anxiety, PTSD or post-traumatic stress disorder and depression can lead to insomnia. Also, sleep apnea—snoring combined with short times of non-breathing—and restless leg syndrome can make for poor sleep. All of these conditions require medical evaluation, so please see your provider if you think that a medical or mental health issue is interfering with good sleep.
Creating the right environment for sleep, developing good sleep habits, and learning to relax and let go of worries are all natural ways to improve sleep for everyone, and they have no side effects. If you try these strategies for two weeks, and still have trouble sleeping every now and then, trying chamomile tea, melatonin or diphenhydramine may give you the added relaxation you need to fall and to stay asleep. However, if your insomnia lasts for more than 3 days a week for 3 or more months, it is time to get evaluated by your provider for insomnia. We are here to help you get restful sleep so that you can be at your best each day.
For more information about Tracy Duncan see her on the provider page.