Wanted: A Good Night's Sleep

A woman sleeps peacefully in a warm-toned, pleasant bed.

by Patrick Wolcott, Sleep Medicine Specialist

It’s 3 a.m. and you’re wide awake. Again.

Counting sheep didn’t work. Changing positions didn’t work. Even those late-night infomercials couldn’t bore you to sleep. Now you’re just lying in bed, wondering how long before the sun comes up.

Just about everyone has a sleepless night once in a while. Most of us make it through the day with a yawn here or there, and sleep fine the next evening.

But for more than 45 million Americans, insomnia and other sleep disorders are ongoing problems — severe enough to interfere with everyday life.

By far, the most common sleep problem in every age group is insomnia. You may have trouble falling asleep, or find yourself waking up during the night, unable to get back to sleep.

For many of us, insomnia is transient, which means it lasts only a day or two, or happens just once in a while. Transient insomnia is usually triggered by stress; for example, worry about problems at home or work.

Understanding chronic insomnia

For about 10 percent of insomniacs, though, sleeplessness is a chronic problem with serious consequences. People with chronic insomnia may be irritable or impatient. They may have short-term memory problems or find it difficult to concentrate, which can lead to serious consequences such as traffic accidents or household injuries.

In fact, research has found that driving while drowsy may be nearly as dangerous as driving while intoxicated.

Fortunately, insomnia can almost always be resolved. If you find yourself lying awake at night, talk to your doctor. Simple changes in diet, work schedule or daily routines often resolve the problem. “Natural” sleep aids such as melatonin, a hormone produced by the body, and valerian, an herbal supplement, may provide relief. There also are over-the-counter medications to help you sleep, but these may leave you feeling drowsy or groggy the next day, and they are not intended for use beyond a week or two.

Your doctor may recommend a prescription sleep aid to get you back into the habit of sleeping through the night.
If necessary, your doctor may refer you to a sleep disorders center, where specialists study patients’ sleep habits and schedules and educate them on being “good sleepers.”

Strategies for sleeping better throughout the night

Sometimes, people simply need to re-learn how to sleep well. If you have problems falling or staying asleep, try these tips.

  • The best sleep is regularly scheduled. A routine bedtime and get-up time are important. If you vary your sleep and wake times on the weekends or throughout the week, your body will find it harder to adjust.
  • Napping can make sleep problems worse. If you’re a napper who has difficulty sleeping at night, try eliminating that daytime nap. In children, naps should be discontinued as soon as they are no longer necessary.
  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol. Chocolate, soda, coffee, tea, alcoholic beverages and some pain medications can disrupt your sleep. Even if you can fall asleep right after a cappuccino, your sleep is likely to be lighter and less satisfying.
  • Exercise regularly. Daily exercise is part of the prescription for insomnia. If possible, try to exercise in the morning. Some people may find that exercising late in the day interferes with sleep.
  • Use your bed and bedroom only for sleeping. Teach your body to associate the bedroom with sleeping, not watching television or doing work.
  • If you can’t sleep, don’t lie in bed tossing and turning. Get up, have a cup of herbal tea or warm milk, read or do something else. Go back to bed when you feel sleepy.

Seeking resources for a good night's sleep

No matter what your age, you should be able to get a good night’s sleep. If sleep problems persist or interfere with work, school or parenting, then a consultation with a physician is needed. This is not something you have to live with.

This Scripps Health and Wellness tip was provided by Patrick Wolcott, M.D., sleep medicine specialist, Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla