What is Insomnia?
Photo by Charlotte Spencer
Insomnia is a sleep disorder that makes it difficult to get to sleep or stay asleep. It can be short term, lasting less than three months and dependent on the environment, or a chronic condition lasting more than three months.
People who suffer from insomnia typically experience sleepiness and fatigue, which can lead to a number of issues including difficulty concentrating, impaired alertness, decreased performance, emotional difficulty, and even depression. Insomnia can have a profound negative effect on your quality of life, particularly chronic insomnia.
When you suffer from insomnia, practically everything is more difficult. You're more likely to get into an accident and it may take longer to get back to good health when you get sick. Furthermore, chronic insomniacs are at a greater risk of developing mental illnesses.
What Causes Insomnia?
Primary insomnia occurs independently. Secondary insomnia occurs due to other conditions or factors, such as stress, injury, illness, or side effects from medications. Insomnia can be brought on temporarily by stress, pain, diet, illness, or a change in your schedule.
Identifying the cause of insomnia, if any, is key in treating it. If you're able to reduce stress, treat an illness or pain, change your diet, or adjust your schedule appropriately, you may be able to resolve insomnia with no other treatment.
Natural Insomnia Treatments
Insomnia treatments include cognitive-behavioral therapy, medications, and natural treatments. Medication is a frequently used treatment for insomnia, but it's best to avoid taking medications for sleep treatments if you can avoid it. Sleep medications come with the risk of dependency, cost, and potential drug interactions.
Natural insomnia treatments are often a better choice for people who suffer from insomnia because they don't come with the risk of dependency or drug interactions, can be done anywhere at any time, and can be effective in offering long lasting insomnia relief.
Natural treatments for insomnia include cognitive-behavioral therapy, meditation, yoga, light therapy, breathing, and improving sleep hygiene.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive-behavioral therapy involves therapy sessions with a qualified sleep professional, usually a psychologist who specializes in sleep. When going through cognitive-behavioral therapy, you will assess your sleep needs, learn more about sleep, examine your current sleeping situation, and identify and eliminate problems and bad habits relating to sleep.
Essentially, cognitive behavioral therapy is extensive sleep education and training in which you will learn how to sleep better. Specific therapies typically include sleep restriction, stimulus control, relaxation training, staying awake as long ass possible, or biofeedback.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy is effective for many individuals, decreasing the amount of time it takes to go to sleep and increasing total sleep time. It is believed to be at least as effective as sleep medication in treating insomnia, and may offer more durable effects.
While cognitive-behavioral therapy can be effective, not everyone with insomnia needs intensive sleep therapy. You may benefit from simply examining your sleep habits and taking steps to improve your sleep hygiene. Adjusting your routine, maintaining a healthy sleep schedule, creating a healthy sleep environment, and keeping a consistent bedtime routine can help you improve sleep. Factors that affect sleep hygiene include your choice of mattress and bedding, sleepwear, sleep schedule, room temperature, light, noise, activities before bed, what you eat, medications, and stress.
Creating a Healthy Sleep Schedule
One of the biggest factors in good sleep hygiene is maintaining a consistent and appropriate sleep schedule. Each day, you should go to bed and wake up at the same time. While it's tempting to sleep in or stay up late on the weekends or on vacation, staying consistent is the best way to maintain the sleep signals your body needs to fall asleep easily and maintain good sleep at night. You should plan to wake up with the sun, as exposure to bright light early in the morning sends a signal to your brain that it's daytime and time to be awake.
Avoid napping less than three hours before bed, or napping for more than 25 minutes or so at any time during the day. If you work at night, be aware that you may need more time to fall asleep, so you'll need to allow more time for sleep.
Activities Before Bed
What you do before bed can influence how well you sleep at night. Things to avoid right before bed are eating big meals, drinking lots of fluids, consuming stimulants such as caffeine, nicotine, and foods with high sugar content, or drinking alcohol. Exercising during the day for at least 20 minutes can help you sleep better, but be careful not to exercise before bedtime, as it can make you more alert. Pay attention to light exposure, especially from electronic devices such as phones, tablets, TVs, and computers. Avoid screen time for at least an hour before bed.
Creating a Healthy Sleep Environment
A healthy sleep environment sets the stage for a good night of sleep. Your bedroom should be cool, dark, and comfortable. Be sure to choose a mattress and bedding that is appropriate for your particular needs, and pay attention to the clothes you wear to bed, as some can be distracting or irritating. It's important that you avoid using your bed for activities other than sleep and sex, as you want your mind to only associate your bed with these activities. Avoid using a laptop, eating, or reading in bed. Avoid letting pets sleep in your bed, as they can reduce your sleep quality.
Meditation can help you calm your mind and body so that you'll be more relaxed and ready for a healthy night of sleep. Meditation types that use minimal cognitive effort are best for sleep, including progressive muscle relaxation, counting meditation, guided meditation, and mindful breathing. Meditation can be practiced in bed, and you may find yourself drifting off to sleep as you practice meditation.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Using progressive muscle relaxation, you will focus on tensing and then releasing the muscles throughout your body, starting with your face, then neck and shoulders, all the way down to your feet and toes. You will hold the contraction for at least five seconds, then relax each muscle group for up to 30 seconds. This practice can help you clear your mind and relieve tension in your muscles.
With counting meditation, you can help your mind shut off thoughts and focus simply on counting. To practice counting meditation, you will start slowly counting. You can count to 100 or as far as you need to in order to fall asleep. If your mind drifts away from the count, acknowledge that you are thinking and shift your focus back to counting.
Guided meditation uses the guidance of a psychologist or meditation teacher to work through meditation exercises. With guided meditation, your work is passive, as you're letting someone else guide you through the exercise. Audio recordings of guided meditation can be helpful and offer meditation exercises including counting, breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or other exercises.
Mindful breathing uses breath as a focus. You will direct your attention to the inhales and exhales of your breathing. You can calm yourself with breathing by extending your exhales slightly longer than your exhales. Your mind may wander, but you should gently shift your focus back to breathing. As you're breathing, focus on how the act of breathing feels and follow your breath as it passes from your nose to your throat, chest, and belly.
The 4-7-8 method for mindful breathing can be especially effective in triggering calmness and relaxation. With this method, you will inhale through your nose using a count of four, hold your breath for a count of seven, and then open your mouth to exhale for a count of eight.
Yoga helps support healthy sleep by lowering stress levels, relieving tension in the muscles, and calming the mind. Yoga also requires focusing on your breath, which can trigger a relaxation response. Yoga poses that are particularly useful for relieving insomnia include:
- Standing forward bend (Uttanasana)
- Moon breath (Chandra Bhedana)
- Cat pose (Marjaryasana)
- Cow pose (Bitilasana)
- Big toe pose (Padangusthasana)
- Corpse pose (Savasana)
- Downward-facing dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)
- Head to knee forward bend (Janu Sirasana)
- Legs up the wall pose (Viparita Karani)
- Seated forward bend (Paschimottanasana)
- Reclining hero pose (Ssupta Virasana)
- Supported headstand (Salamba Sirasana)
- Supported shoulder stand (Salamba Sabangasana)
Light therapy, also known as phototherapy, uses lights to guide circadian rhythms. Exposure to light tells your brain when it's daytime (time to be awake), so getting appropriate light exposure year round can help keep your sleep times on track. With light therapy, you will use a light-emitting box kept next to the bed to guide your circadian cycles. Some devices can be used for travel to avoid jet lag as well.
You can learn more about sleep science, health, and medicine, as well as how to improve the quality of your sleep and the best mattresses for a restful slumber on Tuck.com.
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