Fighting off insomnia

If you have insomnia, you understand the frustration of lying awake for hours while the clock ticks the night away and your chance of getting some rest grows dimmer as the night sky grows brighter. Perhaps you do get to sleep, but just can’t make it through the whole night on a regular basis. Either way, you’re going to be affected during the day. It might be as mild as feeling fatigued and making an error at work or as dangerous as dozing off behind the wheel.

When Should You Worry?

Insomnia isn’t rare, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting that up to 70 million Americans are affected by it every year. It’s also not always something to be concerned about. The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) says that short-term insomnia is common, especially if you’re under stress or go through a traumatic event. For example, acute insomnia can come from family or work pressure. It usually lasts for a few days or weeks before clearing up on its own once the stress or worry subsides.

Chronic insomnia hangs on for at least a month. Sometimes it’s part of an underlying medical condition, but the NHLBI says it may also be a condition on its own. The condition is known as primary insomnia, and while its exact causes aren’t know, it often crops up after a severe emotional trauma or a lengthy period of stress.

Treatment Options

You have several options to treat insomnia. The simplest is known as sleep hygiene, which simply means setting up a nightly routine and sticking to it consistently. Designate a regular bedtime, and stop eating or drinking early enough to keep bathroom needs from waking you up. Stop drinking caffeine early, too, so its stimulant effects won’t keep you up past your bedtime.

Exercise is another simple self-help treatment, particularly if you work out in the afternoon or even later. The National Sleep Foundation says that researchers aren’t sure why physical activity helps, but it’s possibly linked to the body-heating effects of exercise. As an added benefit, the activity also improves your physical condition if you do it regularly.

If your at-home efforts to beat insomnia fail, see a counselor experienced in behavioral therapy methods. These professionals teach you new sleep behaviors and also integrate relaxation techniques to counter the effects of stress that could be keeping you awake.

If all else fails, your doctor can prescribe medication as a temporary measure. Non-benzodiazepine sedative hypnotics are the drug of choice for most physicians. Sleep medication may have odd or unpleasant side effects, so make sure your doctor tells you about those effects and any precautions you need to take.

Some people try melatonin as a natural alternative to drugs. While it might help, the National Sleep Foundation warns that it only does so when taken in the correct dose. Factories that make synthetic melatonin are not regulated by the FDA, so you have no assurance of quality or way to know whether you’re really getting the amount listed on the label.

Attacking the Underlying Cause

Sometimes chronic insomnia goes hand in hand with a mental disorder like anxiety, depression, ADHD, PTSD, bipolar disorder, or substance abuse. If you have an underlying problem, get treatment from a counselor or medical professional. Once you get the disorder under control, your insomnia may relieve itself. If not, you can try the self-help measures discussed earlier to reset your body clock and get back on track.