Understanding insomnia

Some three million Canadian adults suffer from chronic insomnia, yet many never ­discuss the problem with their doctor. This is too bad because insomnia can almost always be put to rest with simple, fast-acting solutions. Read on to learn how to combat your sleepless nights.

Understanding insomnia

1. What is happening

Insomnia is a general term that refers to difficulty falling or staying asleep. We all have occasional sleepless nights, but if you have insomnia for longer periods, research has shown that you're four times more likely to suffer from depression than people who sleep soundly. You're also more likely to underperform at work and to have difficult family relationships. More frightening, you could really hurt yourself (or your loved ones): an estimated 15 percent of Canadian drivers have reported falling asleep ­behind the wheel.

The reason it’s so hard to define insomnia is because everyone requires different amounts of sleep. The bottom line, sleep experts say, is how you feel the next day. If you frequently wake up feeling dull and unrefreshed — either because it took you forever to fall asleep or you woke repeatedly at night or got up too early — there’s a good chance that insomnia is taking its toll.

Most insomnia is triggered by temporary upsets — emotional stress, for example, or flare-ups of arthritis or other painful conditions. Once your life returns to normal, in most cases, so will the quality of your sleep. But sometimes it doesn't work that way. Some people get so frustrated when they can't sleep that they continue to feel anxious even after the original problem is long gone. This can result in long-term, or chronic, insomnia — disturbed sleep that occurs at least three times a week for a month or more.

2. First steps

  • Improve your sleep habits, such as going to bed and getting up at the same times, and exercising regularly, to promote sleepiness.
  • Meditation or other relaxation techniques to reduce emotional stress.
  • Prescription or over-the-counter sedatives for short-term relief of sleeplessness.

3. Taking control

  • Start a sleep diary. By keeping a summary of your sleep habits for about 10 days, you may get valuable clues about what’s happening. Record when you go to bed, how long it takes you to fall asleep, how often you wake up at night, how you feel the next day and so on. Then pass this information along to your doctor.
  • Avoid kava, a popular sleep-inducing herb because of possible links to liver damage.
  • Limit your ZZZZs at first. Some experts advise starting with only four hours of sleep. Once you're sleeping well during these hours, add another 15 to 30 minutes to either end or both — and keep adding time until you're getting the sleep you need.
  • Eat tofu or other soy foods daily. They're rich in compounds called phytoestrogens. Women who regularly eat them are less likely to experience meno­pausal hot flashes or other sleep-disrupting symptoms.
  • Take care with sleeping pills. The short-term use of sleeping pills — often up to a month — is very safe for most people. But there are some exceptions. Watch out if you drink: combining the pills with alcohol intensifies the effects of each. If you're el­derly or get up a lot at night, sleeping pills may increase your risk of falls or other accidents. Or, if you have sleep-related breathing problems, the drugs may increase problems by depressing the vital "breathing centre" in your brain.
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