It’s the wee hours of the morning. You’re tired and you’re lying in a comfortable bed, but you can’t fall asleep and you haven’t been able to for the past few hours. Sound familiar? Most of us have experienced some measure of insomnia at least once in our lives.
For some of us however, insomnia can be a regular night-time visitor even when we aren’t involved in stressful situations. Such cases of chronic insomnia can be very damaging to daily energy levels, job performance and mood. Happy insomniacs are rare, but the good news is that insomnia doesn’t have to be permanent resident of our lives.
What is insomnia and what can be done?
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Chronic insomnia occurs when you experience difficulty falling asleep or constant waking throughout the night more than three days a week for a period longer than three months. There are many causes – both medical and non-medical – so it’s generally considered a good idea for you to get a medical diagnosis before you decide how to best overcome the condition. Common medical conditions that lead to insomnia are respiratory related, such as sinus allergies, sleep apnoea or asthma, and other physical conditions like arthritis or chronic pain.
Mental conditions can also trigger insomnia, as difficulty falling asleep is often a side effect of issues like depression and anxiety. While tackling the root cause of your insomnia is important, any solution aimed at fixing insomnia should come hand-in-hand with a lifestyle change that revolves around developing better sleep habits.
Good lifestyle practices aren't necessarily an instant fix for insomnia, but they work together with medical solutions to help you beat the sleep disorder and get your sleep cycle back on track. Medications may help in the short-term but establishing a regular pattern when it comes to your pre-bedtime routine can go a long way in helping your body recognise when it’s time for bed and help you adjust to a healthier sleep cycle.
Here are the top 5 things you can do to address insomnia:
1. Practice good sleep hygiene
Sleep hygiene is all about the habits you practice that help your body recognise when it’s time for bed, which is necessary when it comes to fighting insomnia. Consistency is key in sleep hygiene – having a regular sleep schedule, establishing a daily bedtime routine and creating a favourable sleep environment are some of the best ways to achieve this. Good pre-bedtime routines include taking a warm shower, relaxing your mind and most importantly, switching off your digital devices because all that blue light and mental stimulation keeps your mind much too alert for sleeping.
As for creating a conducive sleeping environment, the most fundamental step is to keep work out of the bedroom. Let your mind associate the bedroom with nothing else but rest and relaxation – keep the lighting dim and temperatures cosy, and don’t charge your digital devices in there (out of sight, out of mind). Apart from these habits, watching what you eat during the evening is also crucial if you want quality sleep. Stay away from caffeine once it’s past noon and avoid having too much alcohol during dinner as these keep your body awake.
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2. Address the cognitive behaviours behind insomnia
Beyond the practice of good sleep hygiene, there are deeper behavioural patterns that can have an effect on insomnia. The usage of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is built around the premise of sleep being a learned behaviour. This approach sees sleep as a function that's mandated by certain stimuli and cues – a dysfunction in which leads to the onset of insomnia. If you wish to employ CBT, establish stimulus control to help your mind associate the bed with sleep and not with wakefulness. How do you achieve this? By simply staying out of the bedroom when you aren’t sleepy.
It’s important to note the difference between merely feeling tired as opposed to being sleepy. Tiredness can be mental or physical exhaustion, but sleepiness is when you find yourself having difficulty keeping your eyes open. To really tackle the cognitive factors behind insomnia, it’s necessary for you to become accustomed to sleeping and waking up at regular times in a consistent manner, so you may need to keep track of these timings. If your case of insomnia is severe, consider seeing a sleep therapist for professional advice on more advanced methods of cognitive behaviour therapy such as sleep restriction .
A good workout can always be counted on to put you into a deep sleep and leave you feeling refreshed and recharged when you wake up. Exercise is the answer to many sleep problems because deep sleep is the most restorative type of sleep where your body gets the rest it needs to recover. Exercise counters insomnia on many different fronts. Firstly, endorphins released during exercise keep feelings of anxiety or depression at bay, helping you fall asleep easier. Just five minutes of exercise a day can help reduce the negative thoughts that tend to keep you awake and worrying!
There are also biological reasons why exercise is good for sleep, based on its effects on your circadian rhythm. Depending on what time you exercise, your body clock will be shifted, sometimes for the better. Exercise also helps to regulate your core body temperature to a favourable one for sleeping. When you exercise, your body naturally heats up and the subsequent cooling down facilitates relaxation. The energy expended during exercise also makes it easier for you to fall asleep by making you tired (in the good way), which means less tossing and turning! But before you start planning intensive workouts that will wear your body to exhaustion, be warned that over-training is counterproductive and can exacerbate the very problem you are trying to solve.
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4. Natural supplements
Before you get a prescription for clinical medicine, try some natural supplements first. When taken along with good sleep hygiene and habits, the results can be effective enough that you won’t need to spend a ton on clinical medicine! Some good natural supplements include melatonin, magnesium, lavender and passion flower. You probably know melatonin as the sleep-regulating hormone in your body. While melatonin is produced naturally in the body, insufficient melatonin levels make it hard to fall asleep at night, so a supplement can provide the boost you need. Magnesium, on the other hand, is said to regulate the melatonin production process so while it doesn’t directly add melatonin to your system, it can help your body produce more. Lavender oil is popular in aromatherapy and while it doesn’t help with melatonin production, the scent of lavender is associated with calming sensations, as with passion flower tea.
A word on melatonin supplementation: a light touch is generally recommended when it comes to what is considered appropriate use. “Melatonin is not an addictive substance or toxic substance, but one may become reliant on it for sleep,” says Dr Richard Swinbourne, PhD., Senior Sport Dietitian and Sleep Scientist at Singapore Sport Institute. “Always use the minimum dose; start with 0.5-1mg and upwards of 5mg may be used 30 minutes prior to bedtime. Long-term usage is not recommended unless under medical supervision.” Dr Swinbourne also recommends for those who are taking neutrally active medication such as the kind that are typically prescribed for depression or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder to seek further medical advice on the possible effects of drug interactions.
5. Relaxation techniques
Consider trying out some physical techniques for inducing relaxation during those times when heightened stress levels defy all other attempts at alleviating tension. Progressive muscle relaxation is a great way to release the tension from your muscles and calm your body down before bed – all you need is 20 minutes a day and a quiet, comfortable place to lie down. You don’t even need a therapist to guide you because such techniques are anything but complicated. You will be working each muscle in isolation, like your buttocks, upper thighs and chest. For each muscle, simply contract the muscle while inhaling for about 10 seconds, then exhale and feel the tension slip away.
Give yourself a 10-second break before moving on to the next muscle – it’s as easy as that! Apart from muscle relaxation techniques, other methods that work are breathing exercises, mindfulness meditation and journaling. The key to making your relaxation technique work is to fill your mind with calm imagery because your body will only relax if your mind takes the first step!
Insomnia can run in the family
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It is also interesting to note that recent studies have revealed that insomnia can be hereditary, with a greater level of influence being maternal in nature. While this does identify the role of genetics in insomniacs, it does not discount the effect that lifestyle factors (e.g. excessive caffeine intake, irregular work hours, etc.) have on the issue. A similar condition, fatal familial insomnia, is likewise hereditary. This however, is a very rare prion disease with reported incidents being few and far in between.
While genetic testing is the only sure-fire way of finding out if your genes are to blame, you can always jump ahead towards finding a solution to your insomnia by having a talk with the afflicted family member(s). If they already have a remedy that's worked for them, there is a significant chance that adopting something similar will grant you some reprieve.
Anyone suffering from insomnia can definitely attest to how destructive it can be on life's daily routines, leaving one utterly exhausted and adversely affecting productivity. Don’t settle for “I’ll just live with it”; take active steps to disown this sleep disorder. Like most other medical conditions, insomnia can be dealt with if it's identified early on and dealt with effectively. If you think your current sleep health could use some sprucing up, visit our Active Health Labs for more tips that are tailored to your needs.