Insomnia: Definition, Causes and Treatment
If you’re reading this on your phone through half-lidded eyes while the clock flashes 3:30am after another failed attempt at a full night’s sleep — put the phone down and don’t look at it until morning, go to the living room, pick up a book, and climb back in bed when you’re feeling tired again. You might want an answer right now but you know that you’re not about to solve any problems right now, so just keep this tab open and read on in the morning.
Hello there! It’s daytime and now you’re ready to learn about how to cure insomnia so you can get back to feeling less like a zombie and more like the healthy, active person you are!
How do you know if you suffer from insomnia?
Insomnia is characterized by an inability to either fall asleep or stay asleep throughout the night, which results in “non-restorative sleep”. In other words, you’re up past your bedtime or before your alarm and you feel it the next day. If you’re particularly unlucky, you feel it the day after that, and after that, as each night’s lack of sleep seems to compound and you find yourself all but giving up. You decide to become a creature of the night.
Because people require different amounts of sleep per night to feel well-rested, the quantitative benchmark for enough sleep falls between 7 and 9 hours, but it’s also important to improve the quality of your sleep. So how do you know if you suffer from insomnia and you’re not just particularly sleepy lately? Insomnia isn’t a sleep disorder as much as it is a symptom of other sleep-related issues. Take the real insomnia test; if you’re up all night or slogging through the day, you clearly need to change something about how you’re approaching your sleep. If you’re prone to bouts of insomnia, you’ll know it.
But you’re not alone; there are more than 3 million US cases of insomnia every year. There’s hope for you yet and proactive steps you can take immediately to help cure your affliction.
How can I stop my insomnia?
First, identify your insomnia habits and develop a better relationship with sleeping!
While in more extreme cases medical treatment is necessary for insomnia, it’s much more likely that some of your day-to-day habits are the root cause of your inability to sleep. The first step is to consider things that affect your sleep and note down how/when you interact with them throughout the day. “But what is the main cause of insomnia?” you demand to know. It’s hard pin down, but these are some of the top culprits and how to combat them:
Pills & Alcohol
If you take sleep aids like sleeping pills or alcohol (lookin’ at you, Joe Six Pack), you may be causing yourself long-term difficulty by reinforcing your need for a sleep aid. As your body adapts to sleep-inducing drugs and your tolerance requires consistently increasing dosages, you may find that weaning off of pills/alcohol can be difficult, and that your body is not able to produce melatonin effectively (a hormone that helps regulate sleep cycles).
- Try winding down another way — read a book, listen to a podcast or soft music, or do a relaxing activity (like a puzzle or board game).
- Wean yourself off of dependencies. Going cold turkey can be a tough transition but you can do it!
Irregular Sleep Schedule / Napping
If you’re the kind of person whose sleep schedule drastically shifts due to work (calling all bartenders!) or you tend to stay out late on the weekends and sleep in (calling most people!), you’ve likely lost your natural sleep cycle. Your body wants to know the difference between sleep time and awake time, and the strongest natural sleep aid is simply developing a consistent sleep schedule.
- Despite how you feel, try to get into bed and wake up around the same time each day. The adjustment period can be difficult, but it’s so worth it!
- Develop your sleep schedule and STICK TO IT. This is the best natural sleep aid, hands down.
This is a big one. It’s 2019. You’re probably using screens around 10 hours a day, which is pretty wild to think about, considering that the negative effects of excessive screen time have been studied and it’s been proven that blue light emitted from your various devices is disrupting your sleep patterns.
- Give yourself at least one full hour of non-screen time before going to bed at night. Your eyes will relax and thank you for it.
- Try using a screen-tracking app if you have trouble cutting down on screen time in the evenings.
Food & Coffee
Despite needing that first coffee to get the day started (or the second/third/fourth to get back to work after lunch), you might want to consider leaving it for the morning, as caffeine can have long-lasting effects, leaving your mind racing when you need to calm it. Same goes for greasy and heavy foods, which act as stimulants — no more Taco Bell fourth meal, okay? — by requiring your body to energize for digestion.
- Don’t drink coffee after noon (what about a nice decaf tea, huh?)
- Eat dinner earlier and avoid snacks 2 hours before bedtime. If you really need something to munch on, reach for a piece of fruit and dodge the candy or chips.
The Middle of the Night
Sometimes you find yourself waking up only to toss and turn and Google things like “can a person die from insomnia?” (hot tip: the answer is no). If you’re feeling awake and can’t nod back off, get up and do a quiet activity (c’mon, click the link!) until you’re tired enough to sleep again. This helps strengthen your association of being in bed with sleepiness, instead of the inability to stay asleep.
- If you’re a heavy snorer, enough that you wake yourself up, you might want to explore remedies that are specific to snoring. There are lots of resources out there but the causes for snoring can range from simple allergies to more complex physical issues. It’s a whole different beast to tame.
- A midnight snack is temping, but just don’t do it! You’ll get your metabolism riled up for hours.
If you develop a better relationship with winding down and think about sleep in positive terms instead of cursing at your pillow between yawns, you’ll find yourself getting a better night’s sleep in no time! Remember: the best cure for insomnia is self-care. Good sleep practices include having a regular sleep schedule and avoiding your sleep enemies (alcohol, screens, big meals, caffeine, stress). Whether you’re a seasoned vet of sleep loss or you’ve never had insomnia before, remembering these tips will help you sleep through the night — and have happier, more productive days! Take a deep breath, clear your mind, and go back to bed. You can do this.