An estimated 30 percent of working Americans are chronically sleep deprived, and 56 percent of adults say they are tossing and turning a few nights a week or more.
If there is one thing that health experts can agree on, it’s the importance of sleep. And for good reason. The latest studies show sleep has healing properties, boosting our immune system. Sleep helps us conquer stress, keep weight in check, and even boosts creativity. Make sleepless nights a thing of the past with sleep habits designed to help you fall asleep and stay asleep.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says lack of sleep is a health epidemic, noting that getting fewer than five hours of sleep per night may double your risk of heart disease, heart attack and/or stroke. Research has also found a persistent link between lack of sleep and weight gain, insulin resistance and diabetes.
So, the message is clear — we need our sleep. But if you have trouble sleeping, you likely aren’t interested in hearing more about related health problems. After all, that might be what’s keeping you up at night.
Put your worries to rest
Stressful thoughts seem to be a major culprit when it comes to sleepless nights. According to a recent poll by the American Psychological Association, 43 percent of adults say stressful thoughts keep them up at night. Sure, you’ll function better if you get 7 – 9 hours of sleep. But how can you do it? If stress keeps you up at night:
- Get Back to basics. Start with simple sleep hygiene. Go to bed and get up at the same time each day. Avoid caffeine late in the day. Sleep in a cool, dark room. Avoid bright lights late in the day. Make sure lights don’t interfere with your sleep. Avoid computer screens late in the day. Set a relaxing, consistent bedtime routine. Wind down with breathing or relaxation exercises.
- Write down your worries. Did I pay the utility bill? I can’t believe I said that to my mother-in-law. Why did I send that email? When the wheels start spinning, grab a notebook and write it down. While you’re at it, write down three things that you are grateful for that day. It might just help you clear your mind from persistent, random thoughts.
- Exercise, anytime. According to a 2013 National Sleep Foundation poll, even light exercisers are 43 percent more likely to get a good night’s rest than those who are sedentary. What’s more, working out within four hours of bedtime won’t keep most people up.
- Skip the late night cocktail. Sure, a glass of wine just before bedtime will help you nod off. But it won’t improve your sleep. Alcohol is a sedative, and as it wears off, you’re more likely to wake up in the middle of the night and then have a more restless sleep. It takes at least an hour for your body to metabolize a standard drink, so wait one hour per drink before heading to bed.
- Consider sleep meds, but don't depend on them. Medication can help if you occasionally have something stressful keeping you from sleep. However, some people actually function worse the day after taking sleeping medications, because the effects of the drug can linger. It’s important to note that sleeping medications won’t cure a persistent problem. If you have trouble sleeping for more than three months, it usually means that something else is wrong.
The best kept secret for treating chronic insomnia
It isn’t the latest wonder drug. In fact, it’s a pill-free treatment called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I). This therapy is designed to break patterns in thoughts and behaviors that interfere with getting a good night’s rest.
According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, a professional group of sleep doctors, CBT-I should be the first treatment for chronic insomnia. Chronic insomnia is the persistent trouble falling or staying asleep, along with daytime sleepiness or other problems.
- The results of a 2014 study showed that after three sessions of CBT-I, 86 percent of insomniacs showed significant improvement in their sleep.
- The results of a combined study, published in 2015, showed 36 percent of insomniacs lost all signs of insomnia after CBT-I versus 17 percent after other treatments (including pills) or no treatment.
While there are millions of prescriptions for sleeping pills written each year, most people don’t know CBT-I exists. That’s because CBT-I is a relatively new treatment, and it is not widely available. Plus, services may not be covered by your health plan’s benefits. Check your coverage manual or benefit certificate for details.
To make the therapy more widely available, alternative, low-cost online versions and apps are available to help with chronic insomnia. Here are a few reputable online programs and apps:
- CBTforInsomnia.com External Site. Patients are guided through the same steps as someone getting in-person therapy, and are emailed feedback.
- SHUTi External Site. This online program has been successfully piloted at the University of Iowa. It stands for Sleep Health Using the Internet, and lets you share your progress with your physician.
- SleepRate External Site. This app delivers therapy to your smartphone, generating a personalized plan, which can take up to eight weeks to fully implement.
In addition, you can check reputable sites online, such as the National Sleep Foundation, for helpful, free information about CBT-I principles.
Rethink insomnia with CBT-I principles
If that panicky feeling of being awake at 3 a.m. is something you fear, take heart. Losing sleep will make you feel groggy the next day, but it won’t cause you irreparable harm. Stay focused on what you can do, long term, to improve the quality of your sleep. Here are a few basic principles of CBT-I that you can try at home, on your own:
- If you are awake in bed, get out of bed. Spending wakeful, worrying hours in bed sabotages your sleep. Get out of bed anytime you cannot quickly fall asleep. As a general rule, don’t spend 20 minutes in bed without falling asleep.Get up and move to another room, meditate or use a soft light to read a book until you feel sleepy.
- Stop using clocks. Staring at the clock and watching the sleepless hours go by only leads to worry and frustration. Cover the bedroom clock, or store it under the bed, and use it only for an alarm.
- Don’t go to bed early. When you’re at a loss for sleep, going to bed early the next night may seem like a solid solution. However, odds are you won’t be ready to fall asleep. More than likely, you will lie in bed awake, feeling anxious and stressed. This will reinforce bed as a place of anxiety and unrest. Don’t try to make up for lost sleep. For people with insomnia, sleeping in is likely to interfere with good sleep the following night. Instead, try to build up a strong drive for sleep that helps you fall asleep quickly and sleep soundly when you hit the bed that night.
- Spend less time in bed overall. If necessary, set a new, shorter sleep schedule. The idea is to break the mental link between wakefulness and the bed, by going to bed only when you are very sleepy.
- No napping. For those with insomnia, time spent awake is an investment in good sleep. Skipping the nap makes it more likely that you’ll fall asleep at bedtime.
Any therapy requires steady practice. When it comes to CBT-I, some approaches may cause you to lose sleep at first. Stick with it and you may find results.
Waking up exhausted?
Maybe you have one of these problems that need to be addressed:
- Jaw pain. This chronic disorder causes facial pain from clenching and grinding teeth during sleep. Also known as bruxism, it affects eight percent of the population. In some cases, your dentist can create a mouth guard to protect your teeth from wear and tear, and help you get some sleep.
- Nagging need to move or kick your legs while lying down. Also known as periodic limb movement, this disorder causes people to spend their bedtime fighting the irresistible urge to move their legs. The condition is very similar to restless legs syndrome, which occurs while awake, but may keep you from falling asleep. Treatments range from iron supplements and pre-bedtime yoga to, in more serious cases, anti-seizure medications.
- Snoring, or a partner who snores. Snoring could be caused by sleep apnea, a condition that disrupts the sleep of 18 million Americans (and their partners), according to the National Sleep Foundation. With sleep apnea, muscles in the throat relax, blocking the airway. This stops breathing for seconds at a time, until the oxygen-deprived brain wakes the person up. Sleep apnea raises the risk of other health dangers, including heart attack and stroke. Treatment includes weight loss (obesity is a risk factor) and getting fitted with a pressurized mask to keep the airway open.