Insomnia or inability to fall asleep or to stay asleep is a common condition that affects people of all ages, especially adults. About 50% of all adults have occasional insomnia while around 10% have chronic insomnia.
Insomnia is not a disease but simply a symptom that has a variety of causes, chief of which are stress and over stimulation. Other common causes of insomnia include an irregular sleep-wake schedule, excessive intake of alcohol or coffee, intake of medications (e.g., anti-cholinergics, anti-depressants, anti-hypertensives, etc.), and emotional problems that are often relationships or work related. There are, however, insomnias that have no apparent cause.
There is no consensus among experts on how much sleep a person requires to maintain optimal health and wakeful alertness. Evidently, the amount of needed sleep varies from individual to individual and from age group to age group. Although most people sleep between 7-8 hours a night, many function normally with less than 7 or more than 8 hours of sleep. However, regular sleep of less than 4 or more than 9 hours is associated with a shorter life expectancy. Incidentally, the elderly generally need only 5 1/2 to 6 hours sleep a night—the amount of sleep you regularly get. Likewise, old people are “light sleepers.” Hence, I will not even say you have insomnia unless you experience sleepiness during the day that interferes with your daily activities.
Treatment of insomnia depends on the cause, but the following measures should allow you to sleep better, whatever is the cause of your insomnia:
• Regularize your sleeping hours. Go to bed at the same time each night and get up at the same time each morning.
• Keep your bedroom clean, quiet, cool and comfortable.
• Use your bed for sleep and intimacy only. Do not watch TV or read in bed. Get out of bed if you can’t sleep. Return to it only when you’re sleepy. Do not clock-watch nor indulge in counting activities such as counting sheep when you are in bed.
• Do not take your worries and frustrations to bed with you. Likewise, avoid doing stimulating activities before bedtime. Take up relaxing activities such as listening to music or taking a warm bath instead.
• Take an early, light dinner. At the same time do not go to bed hungry. A heavy meal can interfere with sleep, so can hunger.
• Refrain from taking coffee or any caffeine-containing beverages in the afternoon or evening.
• Try taking a warm glass of milk at bedtime. Dairy products contain tryptophan, a natural sleep inducer.
• If you smoke. Quit. Smokers, especially those who consume a pack or more a day, have difficulty sleeping.
• Moderate your alcohol intake.
• Exercise regularly, but this should be in the morning or early afternoon and not four hours or less before bedtime.
• During the day, do not take naps and ensure that you have adequate exposure to sunlight. The body has a natural clock that is reset by sunlight.
• If you are taking medicines on a regular basis, review their side effects with your doctor. Replace those that could possibly interfere with sleep.
If your insomnia persists, seek medical consultation. Do not self-medicate with “sleeping pills.” Sleeping pills are only adjuncts in treating insomnia. If used incorrectly, they aggravate rather than cure sleep problems. Besides, they are very dangerous. Very few people need drugs and only for a limited period of time to help them sleep.