By COLLEEN CREAMER
Whether it’s genetics, age or just a bad day, insomnia is a drag. Difficulty in getting to sleep is increasingly common for those of us in midlife who may be stressed from work, kids either at home or in college or parents whose health may be declining. And with all kinds of programming 24 hours a day, we have created a culture without a circadian rhythm.
Chronic insomnia — a few weeks or more — could be signaling that something is physically wrong such as sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome or other disorders, all of which require a visit to the doctor. But intermittent insomnia needs to be addressed, too, as it can turn into a real problem.
A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
Mark W. Mahowald, Director of the Minnesota Regional Sleep Disorders Center, says a few days of sleeplessness can turn into “learned insomnia.” Lying in bed unable to sleep for more than 15 minutes, he says, only reinforces the association between no sleep and the bed.
“It’s by far and away the most common form of insomnia,” says Mahowald. “It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The individual is afraid he or she isn’t going to sleep. They don’t. It gets reinforced seven nights a week, and so the original cause may be long gone, but the learned insomnia persists.”
Location, Location, Location
Creating a Blissful Bedroom
- Noise: Block out unwanted sounds with earplugs or use “white noise” such as a fan or an air conditioner.
- Temperature: In general, sleep scientists recommend keeping your room slightly cool.
- Light: Make sure to expose yourself to enough bright light during the day.
- Bed: Get a good mattress and give yourself enough space to sleep. If you share a bed with a partner, make sure it is large enough to give both of you room to move around.
- Other factors: Avoid highly engaging activities such as watching dramatic TV close to bedtime. And, though you may love your dog or cat, they can be keeping you up at night if you share a bed with them.
Learning to Sleep
Sleep experts like Mahowald advise making your bedroom a “queue” for sleep. Not working in bed or watching TV in bed is important if your over-stimulated brain is going to associate the bedroom with sleep. Reading is fine, but not for school or work. Sleep experts also say that making the room dark and free of noise and keeping a consistent sleep schedule is an important part of an overall plan for good sleep habits.
Over-the-counter aids like Melatonin and 5-HTP, which can be bought at health food stores, have received mixed reviews recently. Mahowald says they either only act as a placebo, or they make one tired, but do not provide recuperative sleep. Both melatonin and 5-HTP are considered precursors to serotonin, a neurotransmitter in the brain previously associated with sleep. However, he says, that evidence is now being questioned. And though many swear by herbs such as valerian snd skullcap, Mahowald says there is no scientific evidence that they work for recuperative sleep.
Know When to Quit
Other sleep thieves are caffeine-laden sodas and coffee, either in amounts that are too high or too late in the day. The cutoff time to stop drinking caffeinated drinks varies from person to person, but a good time to stop would be around 2:00 p.m. Exercising late at night can also keep some people awake, because the heart rate remains high after exercise, which has a stimulating effect on the brain.
Ten minutes of stretching the major muscles, or doing basic yoga poses, can make a tremendous difference in your ability to relax as another primary reason for sleeplessness is tension. As little as 15 minutes of meditation every evening can have a long-term impact because meditation, in effect, teaches the brain how to shut out your “script.” A fan produces a good approximation of what is called white noise, because it contains all frequencies and can mask other sounds.
No Midnight Laundering
Still, Mahowald says, the best medicine is prevention. If you do get up because you can’t sleep, do not do laundry or taxes as they will have a backlash effect of rewarding you for not sleeping.
“You can prevent the development of learned insomnia by not lying in bed,” he says. “The best thing to do is to acknowledge that a couple of sleepless night will not have any adverse consequences medically. If you are awake for more than 15 minutes, then you should get out of the bed and do something that does not reward you.”
Watching television, doing some mindless reading or piecing together a puzzle are a few activities that won’t create a subconscious pattern of positive reinforcement.
The amazing brain.