Sleep Disorders: Insomnia

Chronic sleep deprivation, or insomnia, makes you prone to errors at work. It slows your reaction time and impairs your concentration. It can even put you in danger if you doze off while driving, and it makes all kinds of accidents more common. As many new mothers know, lack of sleep can make you short-tempered and cranky, even with those who need your patience the most.

Insomnia affects more than 70 million Americans and one in six adults considers sleep problems a serious issue in their lives. Yet many of us are hesitant to bring sleep issues up with a doctor. In our workaholic culture, people brag about how little sleep they're getting, because it is seen as the sign of a motivated and efficient person. But the fact is that most people's bodies rack up a "sleep debt" without a good eight straight hours of sleep a night. And that debt can be hard to pay down: sleep deprivation has been linked to an increased risk for depression, obesity, high blood pressure and lower productivity at work. It should be considered a serious health problem. Those co-workers who are so proud of getting only five hours of sleep a night might need to spend longer at the office to get the same amount done.

Insomnia doesn't just mean an inability to fall asleep at night. If you wake up frequently, have trouble getting back to sleep, wake up too early or just feel fatigued when you wake up, you could have insomnia. Short-term factors like a move, the loss of a job or other major life stresses can bring on a bout of insomnia. Chronic or longer-lasting problems can also be caused by emotional conditions or ongoing physical discomforts.

Talking to your doctor is always the right first step. But the following good sleep habits can also get you on the path to eight straight restorative hours of peace:

Keep the bed and the bedroom about sleep

It's easy to fudge this one, but sleep habits are important. Your body and mind make powerful connections and associations that can be hard to break. If you're not sleeping well, you may already associate your bed with anxiety and the stress of watching the minutes tick by on your alarm clock. You want to try to train your body to associate the bed, and even the bedroom, with rest and rest alone. Use your bed for sleep and sex only. That means no reading in bed (not even US Weekly!). Don't do work or any other wakeful activities in the bedroom, keep computers and TVs in another room. If you can't sleep, get out of the bed and read until you feel sleepy (go back to that US Weekly in the living room). If you tend to let your mind churn through your to-do list while trying to sleep, try writing everything on that list down before you go to bed (but make sure to keep the list safely on your desk).

Make sure your bedroom is geared towards a good night's rest. Darkness is important: get blackout shades, or a sleeping mask. Make sure it's not too hot and not too cold. Add whatever elements make you more comfortable.

Try behavioral adjustments and relaxation techniques

Behavioral therapies and relaxation techniques include restricting your time in bed to however many hours you are successfully sleeping (even if it's only three or four). That way, whenever you are in bed, you're asleep. Then your can extend your time in bed by fifteen minutes a night until you reach eight straight hours. The point is to train your body to associate bed with sleep and nothing else. However, this is a harder technique to stick with, and it might be worth consulting a sleep professional or other resources before you try it.

Have a routine

Take a bath, listen to music in a comfy chair, read a book or do something that helps you unwind every night. Go to sleep at the same time every night, and get up at the same time in the morning. If you can't sleep, try not to nap during the day. You're trying to get your body on a sleep schedule, and naps interrupt those circadian rhythms.

Avoid caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol - especially late at night

If you can't avoid alcohol and caffeine completely, avoid caffeine after noon and avoid alcohol after early evening. Coffee and cigarettes stay in your system much longer than you might expect. Alcohol might put you to sleep at first, but it wakes you up when it leaves your system later on, disrupting those rhythms.

Exercise early and often

As with so many other health concerns, exercise can make things better. Regular exercise has proven in some studies to be as effective as sleeping pills in curing insomnia. But it's important not to exercise late in the day or in the evening. Give yourself three or four hours to unwind from a work-out before you try sleeping.

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