Could you be suffering from insomnia?

Tips for getting a better night's rest

Who knew W.C. Fields possessed such healing knowledge?

“The best cure for insomnia is to get a lot of sleep,” the old-time comedian famously quipped.

If only it were so simple, you may be thinking … among other things you’re thinking, thinking, thinking as you toss and turn, trying to get some shut-eye.

More than a quarter of Americans report that they occasionally don’t get enough sleep, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Nearly 10 percent have it much worse. The CDC classifies these troubled sleepers as chronic insomniacs, routinely saddled with severe difficulty falling asleep, midsleep waking or unwanted early rising. These habits, in whatever combination, prevent chronic insomniacs from getting adequate rest.

“The causes for this are quite wide, and range anywhere from emotional and psychological stressors to medical reasons like sleep apnea, enlarged tonsils, pain, hot flashes or an overactive thyroid,” said Laura K. Hawley, M.D., a family medicine physician at Norton Community Medical Associates – Highlands.

The amount of sleep a person needs to stay healthy varies throughout life, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. Its guidelines show, for instance, that newborns need 16 to 18 hours of sleep daily, compared with preschoolers, who need 11 to 12 hours.

The need for sleep decreases slightly as a person ages. The guidelines recommend at least 10 hours a day for school-age children, nine to 10 hours a day for teens and seven to eight hours a day for adults, including the elderly.

People often have an idea of what’s behind an occasional sleepless night. Perhaps it’s too much caffeine, exercising late in the day, an extra glass of red wine with dinner or too much stimulation from TV, movies or the Internet.

The National Sleep Foundation offers these tips for getting a better night’s rest:

  1. Keep a routine. Go to bed at the same time each night and wake at the same time every morning.
  2. Set the scene. Make sure your bedroom is quiet, dark and relaxing, with a just-right temperature.
  3. Draw the line. Keep activities like reading, watching TV and listening to music out of the bedroom. Make sure your bed is comfortable and use it only for sleeping — not homework or bill-paying.
  4. Avoid large meals before bedtime.

If sleep still eludes you after these behavioral improvements — especially if the lack of rest makes it difficult for you to function during the day — it may be time for professional help.

“I would recommend checking with your physician first to make sure there is no underlying medical reason for the insomnia,” Dr. Hawley said. “It is very important to determine what is causing insomnia in order to correctly treat it.”

It can be helpful to keep notes on your sleep habits before seeing the doctor, detailing such things as when you go to bed, fall asleep and wake up; and if and when you are napping, exercising and consuming alcohol or caffeine.

Also be sure to tell our doctor if you are using any over-the-counter sleep aids, Dr. Hawley said.

For instance, many people who have trouble falling asleep try taking something that contains melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate the body’s sleep-wake cycle. Other over-the-counter sleep aids contain diphenhydramine, commonly found in the antihistamine Benadryl, which can cause drowsiness. 

“It also comes along with a lot of potential unwanted side effects, like dry mouth, confusion and delirium,” Dr. Hawley said.

“Many over-the-counter meds may interact with other medications you are taking, or cause unwanted side effects,” she said. “Because of these reasons, I would always check with your doctor first before taking over-the-counter medications.”


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