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What is Insomnia?

Updated on August 20, 2014

You'll try anything. You flip the pillow over to the cold side, thinking that might help you sleep. You lie on your back. Turn over on your side. Your other side.

Your stomach.

Nothing works.

Fluffy pillows.

One pillow.

Two pillows.

Your partner's pillow.

No pillow.

And still no sleep.

As you lie there night after night suffering with insomnia, it may comfort you to know that you're not alone. Much of America is awake with you.

Photo by Bob Smith

Wide Awake Coast to Coast

Approximately a third of the population of the United States has trouble sleeping. At some point in their lives, half of those people, about 15 percent of the country, will have chronic insomnia that lasts for months.

It's a wonder all that rustling around at night doesn't keep more people awake.

Insomnia can occur at any age, even in childhood, but it tends to happen more often as you get older. By the time people reach their sixties, about 80 percent of them will have at least some insomnia during the year.

Take heart. You're about to learn how to drift off to the land of Nod effortlessly - to fall asleep faster and sleep more soundly than you have in years.

Technically, insomnia is classified as the inability to fall asleep or maintain sleep, but there is good news here. Research in sleep disorder laboratories shows that most insomniacs actually do sleep. They may not be sleeping very well, but they are getting quite a bit more sleep than they think they are.

We all have individual sleep quotas. The range of sleep requirements is from 6 to 9 hours a night for most of us. (Doctors say we should get at least 5 hours and no more than 10 to be the healthiest.) Your sleep quota is genetically determined and remains the same throughout your adult life. It's possible to lengthen or shorten your sleep time, but only by an hour or so.

So how much sleep do you need? Enough to feel rested, alert, and able to stay active all day. If you find yourself frequently feeling irritable, nodding off while listening to a lecture that you need to pay attention to, or drinking more coffee than usual to get perking in the morning, you may not be meeting your sleep requirement.

The Fine Art of Sleeping

To sleep tight, you have to learn to sleep right. Use your bedroom only for sleeping and sex. Plan all your evening activities so that you wind down slowly toward sleep. Don't work right up to the time you go to sleep. Relax. Take a warm bath. Sit and soak for a while. A warm bath will elevate your body temperature and help make you sleepy.

Develop a routine. Establish and keep a regular bedtime and arising time. Try to wake up and get out of bed the same time every morning, even on holidays and weekends.

And while you're at it, don't take naps during the day. A long nap following a night of insomnia may disturb the next night's sleep.

Instead of napping, try taking a brisk walk around the block each day to fight the drowsies. In fact, engaging in regular exercise is another good way to ensure a night's sound sleep. Studies have shown that regular afternoon exercise increases sleep's deeper stages.

The key word is regular. If you try to cram all your exercise into the weekend, you'll wind up with aches and pains that will keep you up all night. So don't overdo it.

Do's and Don'ts for Dozing

In addition to regular exercise, make it a practice to watch what you eat and drink before bedtime. Hunger may disturb sleep, as may caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco. A light snack or glass of warm milk may promote sleep, but avoid heavy or spicy foods.

While sleeping pills can be effective when used as part of a coordinated treatment plan for certain types of insomnia, chronic use is ineffective at best and can be detrimental to sound sleep.

If after all of this you still can't get to sleep, don't lie in bed awake. If you can't fall asleep within 20 minutes, leave the bedroom. Go out into another room, such as your living room, and stay there until you feel sleepy, then go back to bed.

The Too-Early Bird

If you have a problem with waking up too early and not being able to go back to sleep, don't just lie there looking at your alarm clock. Get out of bed until you are sleepy again.

Watching your alarm clock frequently creates insomnia, as it makes you feel anxious about not falling asleep. It's okay to have an alarm clock, but put it where you will hear the alarm without being able to see the clock dial.

There are times when you need to see your doctor about insomnia. If you find it impairs your ability to function during the daytime, if it affects your work, or you find yourself too tired or sleepy to get through the day, then you need to see a doctor. Also, see your doctor if insomnia lasts for more than a month or so.

Do you have trouble sleeping?

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