The United States National Institutes of Health estimates that at least 40 million Americans experience long-term, chronic sleep problems every year. An additional 20 million report sporadic or occasional trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep.
Sleep problems tend to get worse with age, ultimately affecting roughly 40 percent of women and 30 percent of men. While insomnia can be a standalone issue, it can also be the most obvious and disabling symptom of other health problems, including depression, asthma, arthritis, heartburn or chronic pain.
Research has firmly established that, far from solving the health issues and productivity losses associated with sleep deprivation, sleeping pills seem quite dangerous, as the risk of death is more than four times as high among regular users.
So what’s a tired, sleep-deprived soul to do?
Daniel Kripke, MD, a sleep researcher with Scripps Clinic in San Diego and co-author of the sleeping pill safety study, offers six solid pieces of advice to help people suffering from periodic insomnia to get their body clocks back on track — naturally.
1. Don’t worry if you aren’t getting 8 hours of sleep.
The average adult in the U.S. reports sleeping 6.5 hours, and most do not need a full 8 hours of sleep. In fact, somewhat surprisingly, research shows that people with insomnia actually live longer than people without insomnia. In fact, Dr. Kripke says getting 5.5 hours of sleep per night may actually be safer than getting 8.5.
2. Limit your time in bed.
If you can’t fall asleep within a reasonable amount of time, or find yourself lying wide awake in the middle of the night, don’t stay in bed fighting sleeplessness. Instead, get up, go to another room, and do something relaxing, like light reading. Don’t return to bed until you’re feeling genuinely drowsy.
3. Practice good sleep hygiene.
Keep your bedroom cool, dark and quiet. That means banishing electronics; don’t watch TV or use electronic devices in bed. Routine is also important, so go to bed and get up at the same time every day of the week; don’t try to make up for “lost” sleep by spending extra hours in bed on Saturday and Sunday.
4. If you nap, limit your daytime sleep to fewer than 40 minutes.
Waking up from a long nap can leave people groggy, disoriented and more tired than they were before they closed their eyes.
5. Avoid caffeine after mid-afternoon, and limit alcohol in the evening.
Both of these substances can disrupt sleep. Late-day caffeine intake can make falling asleep difficult, while a nightcap may actually cause fractured, fragmented sleep punctuated by several periods of mid-evening wakefulness.
6. If your mind won’t stop racing with worry, don’t do it in bed.
Designate a household “worry chair” and relocate there when you find you cannot get rid of anxious thoughts at bedtime. Go back to bed once the chair has served its purpose and your mind is better rested.