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Sleep Library

Coping with Insomnia

Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder among U.S. adults. Estimates indicate that 30 percent or more of adults in the U.S. experience insomnia at some point in a year. For 10 percent of those people, insomnia is chronic. Insomnia is not the same thing as sleep deprivation, although both can lead to difficulty with daytime functioning, and to health problems. The symptoms of insomnia include issues that interfere with both sleep quality and sleep quantity. Not everyone with insomnia experiences all of these symptoms at once or even at all. The presence of any of these sleep problems can be an indication of insomnia:

Difficulty falling asleep. People with insomnia may experience difficulty with sleep onset, the process of moving from wakefulness to sleep. Tossing and turning, feeling unable to get comfortable in bed, and running stressful thoughts repeatedly through one’s mind are common experiences for people with insomnia. Difficulty falling asleep can lead to less sleep overall, or to extended sleep in the morning, which may further disrupt normal sleep cycles.

Difficulty staying asleep. Insomnia can also include repeated awakenings throughout the night. These interruptions to sleep can be brief or prolonged. Both types of awakenings interfere with the full progression of sleep through the sleep cycle, and can result in diminished time spent in more restorative stages of deep sleep and REM sleep.

Waking too early. This symptom of insomnia is less recognized than others, but can be no less troublesome to healthy sleep. Waking very early in the morning shortens overall sleep amounts. It also deprives you of the mentally-restorative REM sleep, which occurs predominantly in the final third of the night.

Other symptoms of insomnia include waking feeling un-refreshed by sleep, and experiencing daytime fatigue and tiredness. Insomnia can interfere with mental focus, concentration, and problem solving abilities. The cognitive effects of insomnia can pose difficulties with performance at work, in school, and in everyday tasks. The sleep-disruptive effects of insomnia also extend to mood and emotional balance, and can lead to problems in relationships across all parts of life.

Types of insomnia

Insomnia takes different forms. In some cases, insomnia is acute, occurring suddenly and lasting for up to a few nights before resolving. The cause of acute insomnia isn’t always clear, but it often crops up in response to life’s events. Loss of a loved one, leaving a job, ending a relationship—these difficult events in life can lead to insomnia. Even exciting and positive events like weddings, new babies, graduations, or upcoming travel can help bring on episodes of acute insomnia.

Other times, insomnia becomes a chronic, ongoing sleep issue. Chronic insomnia is generally regarded as insomnia that lasts for a month or more, at least a few nights a week. This form of insomnia isn’t always attributable to a cause or condition. However stress can be a common cause of chronic insomnia. Other medical conditions or illnesses also may contribute to chronic insomnia.

More common for women

Women experience insomnia at higher rates than men. Women’s risk for insomnia is influenced in part by the hormonal cycles of menstruation. Pregnancy can elevate a woman’s risk for insomnia, as can menopause. The risk of insomnia for both men and women increases with age.

Consistent sleep schedule helps

Maintaining a strong sleep routine can help guard against insomnia, as well as help diminish its severity if it does arise. A healthy sleep routine includes regular bedtimes and wake times—a schedule that you adhere to even on weekends. This consistency helps reinforce the body’s internal sleep-wake cycles. A strong sleep routine also includes ample time for a full night’s rest. Most healthy adults need between seven to nine hours of sleep on a regular basis. A period of winding down in preparation for bedtime is an important component of a sleep-strengthening routine. Quiet, calm time for relaxation in a low-light environment can help ease the stress of the day and make falling asleep easier. A cool, dark bedroom free of unwanted noise and light will help you sleep more easily and more soundly.

Live to sleep soundly

Managing other waking habits can help strengthen sleep and may reduce your risk of experiencing insomnia. Keeping caffeine consumption in check, and limiting caffeine to the early part of the day will help avoid night-time alertness that can interfere with sleep onset. Avoiding alcohol within four hours of bedtime can prevent the disruption to sleep—especially to the second half of the night—that’s associated with drinking later in the evening. Finding ways to cope effectively with stress is another important way to improve sleep and reduce your risk for insomnia. Exercise also can help. A routine of regular exercise is a great way to manage stress and to improve sleep at the same time. Research indicates exercise can help ease symptoms of insomnia. Just be sure not to exercise too close to bedtime, or you may interfere with sleep. Leave at least three hours between exercise and your regular bedtime.

These strategies together amount to what sleep experts call good “sleep hygiene”—a collection of healthy sleep habits that help ensure plentiful, restorative, refreshing sleep, and a feeling of well-being during waking life. Strong sleep hygiene will help you protect against insomnia and allow you to sleep more restfully and well.

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