If you find yourself tossing and turning for hours, unable to go to sleep or stay asleep, you could be suffering from insomnia. Nearly 40 percent of Americans report some symptoms of insomnia in a given year. It can take a toll on one’s emotional, psychological, and physical well-being.
Chronic lack of sleep not only causes stress and depression, but has been linked to a cluster of disorders such as diabetes, memory loss, obesity, elevated blood pressure, an increase in bad cholesterol, and accumulation of dangerous abdominal fat hugging one’s internal organs.
When it comes to insomnia, professionals and sleep experts say it’s hard to tell whether it’s your body that’s keeping your mind awake or vice versa.
One significant cause of poor sleep quality is obstructive sleep apnea (OSA), a serious medical condition in which airways collapse during sleep, interrupting breathing and waking people up. But not everyone with this condition realizes they are sleeping poorly. They simply feel exhausted all the time, even after what they erroneously perceive to be a solid night of sleep.
Obstructive sleep apnea can be officially diagnosed during a sleep study called polysomnography, but doctors recommend these two easy at-home tests to see if you could be at risk:
- The choke test. Using your index fingers and thumbs, try wrapping your hands around your neck. If your fingers can’t touch, you could be at risk.
- The snore test. Tilt your head back, relax the muscles in your throat and breathe in through your mouth. If you make a noise while you’re breathing, you could be at increased risk.
If you think you might have sleep apnea, talk to your primary care doctor or a doctor who specializes in sleep disorders. It requires professional treatment to improve your symptoms and design a customized treatment plan.
Mild insomnia can be helped by the following:
- No caffeine after 2 p.m. While it’s tempting to grab a latte for your afternoon pick-me-up, resist the temptation. While everyone metabolizes caffeine differently, it can still linger in your body for eight to 10 hours. Try a caffeine-free alternative instead, or hydrate with good old-fashioned water to increase your energy level and help you stay focused.
- Minimize alcohol intake. Alcohol may make you feel sleepy initially, but as it wears off it can interrupt your REM (deep) sleep, and the different stages of sleep that come before your REM cycle (roughly 90 minutes after your head hits the pillow). Limit your intake as much as possible and don’t drink within three hours of bed time. A glass of red wine might make you fall asleep faster, but your quality of sleep will suffer.
- Turn out the lights and electronics 45 minutes before bed. Even minimal amounts of blue light emitted from cell phones, laptops, alarm clocks, or tablets can mess with your body’s production of melatonin, which helps you feel sleepy and regulates sleep-wake cycles. Taking melatonin supplements or prescription sleep aids might cause rebound insomnia, especially if taken at higher doses. Sleeping pills also can cause a hangover in the morning; you might still feel groggy as the effect of the pill begins to wear off. This can be especially dangerous if you are driving.
- Listen to white noise. These soothing sounds could significantly improve your sleep. Be aware that sensitivity to these noises are highly individualized. What is a pleasant sound to one person could be a cacophonous sound to someone else.
- Jot down your worries. If your find that your mind keeps running around in circles, keeping you from sleep, try writing down a list of your concerns and ever-growing to-do list in a journal which you keep by your bed. You can leave your worries there, and rest assured they’ll be there waiting for you with open arms when you need to revisit them again — preferably in the morning.
You are your own advocate, so make sure to be a sleep sleuth when it comes to your emotional and physical health.