I see a lot of adults and teens in the clinic who are chronically tired and have trouble both falling asleep and staying asleep. There are many reasons for sleep problems. Here are some common causes:
Stress and overwork. Many people lead stressful lives and cannot turn off their brain when they try to sleep. It is crucial to stop daytime-related activities at least two hours before bedtime, simply to allow your brain and body to relax.
Too much non-sleep activity in bed. It’s important not to spend hours in bed doing activities such as watching TV or playing computer games – which sets a bad pattern. It’s healthier to read, watch TV and use the computer in other rooms.
Tips for sleeping well:
- Exercise often and early. Exercise has been shown to improve sleep habits, but only if done at least four hours before bedtime. Otherwise, your metabolic energy will keep you awake.
- Avoid alcohol and smoking before sleeping. Alcohol is a major cause of insomnia for many. Drinks certainly make you sleepy, but your body will rebound and wake you up in the middle of the night. If you drink, have only one or two drinks at least two hours before bedtime. Smoking causes the same problems; that initial relaxation quickly wears off and the nicotine stays in your system for hours.
- Caffeine is another major cause of poor sleep. As we get older, it is common to have poor sleep with any caffeine drinking after lunchtime. So take a look at your caffeine habits; any tea, soda or coffee after lunch may be keeping you awake. If you must have your afternoon coffee, try switching to decaf.
- Don’t stay in bed if you can’t sleep. If you can’t fall asleep after 20 minutes of trying, you should get up and try to relax in another room. Staying longer in bed generally makes you more anxious, making it even harder to fall back asleep.
- As for natural medicines and non-prescription pills, many people use over-the-counter pills such as Tylenol PM, but I strongly advise against taking it regularly. It can cause liver problems if taken chronically and the Tylenol component is unnecessary. If you must use this medicine, purchase only the active ingredient, diphenhydramine (Sudafed) separately. As for natural medicines, melatonin works for some types of insomnia but is rarely effective. Others may consider an herbal capsule with valerian and other compounds such as passionflower, hops or lemon balm. You can read more evidence-based information about herbal medicines for insomnia from the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database at http://naturaldatabase.therapeuticresearch.com.
If you follow these tips and still have trouble sleeping, do not hesitate to see your family doctor. Also, counselors and psychologists can help via special therapies which may include biofeedback, light boxes, or medicine for depression and anxiety.