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A Guide to Sleeping Better

Here’s a look at some common sleep problems and what you can do about them.

Can’t Fall Asleep or Can’t Stay Asleep

Most people experience short-term insomnia at some time. Insomnia includes having trouble falling asleep, having trouble getting back to sleep, and waking up too early. Insomnia is more common in females, people with a history of depression, and in people older than 60.

Temporary insomnia can be caused by noise or a stressful event like the loss of a job or a death in the family. A National Sleep Foundation poll of 993 adults over 18 found that close to half of the respondents reported symptoms of insomnia as they tried to sleep in the nights immediately following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

Certain medications could keep you awake, particularly those that treat colds and allergies, heart disease, high blood pressure, and pain. And some of us practice bad habits that sabotage our sleep. This includes drinking alcohol and eating too close to bedtime, says James Walsh, Ph.D., president of the National Sleep Foundation and executive director of the Sleep Medicine and Research Center in Chesterfield, Mo.

“Alcohol works as a sedative, but it’s also metabolized quickly — within two to three hours for moderate doses,” Walsh says. “So you’ll have a rebound effect. You may sleep soundly for the first couple of hours but then toss and turn later.” And large meals in the two hours before bedtime could cause indigestion (see “Tips for Better Sleep”).

Short-term insomnia lasts only a few days and is usually not a cause for concern. For example, with jet lag, your internal body clock will readjust itself within several days. It’s wise to read labels carefully and check with your doctor before using over-the-counter (OTC) sleep medicines for short-term insomnia. These drugs use sedating antihistamines to make you drowsy. Examples include Nytol (diphenhydramine) and Unisom Nighttime (doxylamine).

People with breathing problems, glaucoma, or chronic bronchitis, pregnant or nursing women, and people who have difficulty urinating due to an enlarged prostate should not use these medicines. People with sleep apnea shouldn’t take sleep-promoting medicine because it could suppress their respiratory drive, making it harder to wake up when they experience an episode of interrupted breathing.

A Guide to Sleeping Better

Amy Bellows, Ph.D.

APA Reference
Bellows, A. (2020). A Guide to Sleeping Better. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 6, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 14 Jan 2020 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 14 Jan 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.