A Doctor's Advice for Sleeping Better with Insomnia

/ October 21, 2019

We all have a little trouble falling asleep once in a while. But how do you know when you've crossed the line from average restlessness into medically diagnosable insomnia? We chatted with Nashua Wahba, a Daytona Beach, Fla.-based doctor of osteopathic medicine who specializes in sleep, about how to spot the signs of insomnia and what to do when you just can't sleep.

What are the most common signs of insomnia?

You may be experiencing insomnia if you're having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, even if nothing in your environment is preventing you from doing so. People with insomnia usually wake up tired. Common signs of insomnia include:

  • Trouble concentrating
  • Decreased energy
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Symptoms of depression
  • Performance issues at school or work

What are the different types of insomnia?

There are a couple of different types of insomnia. Knowing which one you have will help you and your doctor figure out how to treat it. The two main types of insomnia are acute insomnia and chronic insomnia.

Acute insomnia usually doesn't last long, as it tends to be brought on by life events. For example, if you have trouble falling asleep before your first day at a new job, you may be experiencing acute insomnia. If this describes your experience, you can relax: This kind of insomnia tends to go away on its own without treatment.

Chronic insomnia, on the other hand, is more difficult to deal with. Chronic insomnia is characterized by periods of days, weeks, or even longer when you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. The causes of chronic insomnia are more complicated as well.

Related: How one woman fought insomnia (and won)

What causes chronic insomnia?

Multiple factors can contribute to chronic insomnia. If you've been having trouble sleeping for more than a week or two, it may be time to see your doctor, who can discuss possible causes of your insomnia and what you can do to treat it.

Common causes of chronic insomnia include the following:

  • Stimulants: It may seem obvious, but drinking coffee too late in the day can disrupt your sleep schedule. Nicotine can have a similar effect. (Learn about how vaping affects your sleep.)
  • Medications: Some antidepressants, steroids, allergy medicines, and other drugs can keep you awake. Overusing sleeping pills can lead to dependence, making it difficult to fall asleep without them.
  • Mental health concerns: Stress, depression, anxiety, and other issues can keep you up at night.
  • Sleep disorders: Disorders like narcolepsy, sleep apnea, and Restless Legs Syndrome can affect the quality of your sleep.
  • Illnesses: Other illnesses such as arthritis, acid reflux, asthma, and COPD, overactive thyroid, and many others often present with insomnia as a symptom. This is one of the many reasons why it's important to see your doctor if you're having trouble sleeping. Insomnia might be the symptom of an undiagnosed problem.

How is insomnia diagnosed?

Insomnia can affect anyone—and since it can be caused by so many things, it's important to see your doctor as soon as you recognize a disruptive pattern in your sleep.

Since there isn't a test to diagnose insomnia, your doctor will rely on the information you collect yourself. Before you go, keep a thorough log of all the medications you take and the times you take them. You can do the same for food if you think your insomnia may be related to what you eat.

Otherwise, keeping a sleep diary that logs when you get in bed, around when you fall asleep, when you wake up, and how you feel in the morning will most likely give your doctor enough information to make a diagnosis.

If your doctor suspects your insomnia is a symptom of something else, however, they may refer you to a specialist for further testing.

Related: Does the keto diet cause insomnia?

How is insomnia treated?

Medication often isn't the first line of defense, which is good news if you're worried about taking more prescriptions. Unless your insomnia is related to an underlying medical cause, your doctor will most likely ask you to improve your sleep hygiene.

Wahba offers these tried-and-true tips to anyone dealing with insomnia:

  • Maintain a consistent sleep-wake schedule.
  • Don't force yourself to maintain a sleep pattern that isn't natural for you.
  • Try not to nap if it disrupts your sleep pattern.
  • Only use your bedroom for sleeping.
  • Create a relaxing bedtime routine.
  • Learn relaxation techniques like yoga and meditation.
  • Avoid alcohol before bed.
  • Don't forget to exercise.

Have trouble falling asleep? Here are 14 things you can right now for better sleep tonight.

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