Q&A: Insomnia—what to do when you can't sleep

April 6, 2018 by From Mayo Clinic News Network, Mayo Clinic News Network

Credit: Charles Rondeau/public domain
Dear Mayo Clinic: What is the best way to eliminate insomnia? For almost a year, I've had trouble getting much sleep. I've tried over-the-counter medications, but they aren't very effective.

A: Although sleep medications may be useful when you have occasional trouble sleeping, they aren't meant for long-term use. A better approach is to change your behaviors to cultivate quality sleep. An evaluation with your health care provider to check for underlying issues that could be negatively affecting your sleep also could be valuable.

Insomnia is defined as having problems getting to sleep or staying asleep three nights a week or more for at least three months. When dealing with , it's important to rule out medical issues that could be driving it. For example, and are two common problems that can lead to insomnia. Some medications also can cause . See your health care provider to review any medications you take, and investigate whether a medical condition could be contributing to your sleeplessness.

If an evaluation doesn't reveal an underlying cause of insomnia, you may benefit from behavioral changes. These changes get your brain to associate your bed and nighttime with sleep.

First, establish a bedtime routine. For example, about 30 to 60 minutes before you go to bed, turn lights low. Turn off the TV and other electronic devices. Brush your teeth and wash your face. Change into pajamas and get into bed. A consistent routine each night gives your brain clear signals that sleep is coming.

Second, reduce the amount of wakeful time you spend in bed. If you get into bed and don't fall asleep within 15 to 20 minutes, get up and go to another room. Keep your surroundings quiet and dimly lit. Don't turn on the TV or other . That will wake up your brain, rather than getting it ready for sleep. Instead, do some light reading, listen to quiet music or engage in relaxation techniques. Perform these activities sitting up, rather than lying down.

When your eyes get heavy and your head starts to bob, get back into bed. Don't go back to bed when you're just feeling tired. Wait until you're sleepy. If you can't sleep once you get into bed, or if you wake up again and cannot fall back to sleep within 15 to 20 minutes, repeat the cycle.

By minimizing the amount of time you spend in bed awake, you're teaching your brain to associate your bed with sleep. Sometimes, people think it's a good idea to be in bed at night—even if they are not sleeping—because they are getting some rest. But that conditions your brain to associate being in bed at night with being awake—the opposite of what you want.

Another way to condition your to associate your bed with sleep is to avoid other activities in your bedroom. Don't read, watch TV or spend much time in your bedroom during the day. When your alarm goes off, get up, start your morning routine and get out of the bedroom as soon as possible. Do this even when you haven't slept well. Dozing in bed between snooze alarms won't provide quality sleep, and it reinforces poor sleep patterns.

Also, pay attention to other health habits. Sometimes when you are not sleeping well and feel tired the next day, you'll increase your caffeine intake. While this may help you during the day, it can complicate sleep at night. Work to reduce or eliminate caffeine in your diet. If you continue to use caffeine, consider gradually reducing the amount over time or try switching to half-caffeinated beverages. It is also a good rule of thumb not to consume caffeinated drinks after 3 p.m. or six to eight hours before bedtime.

Finally, don't rely on sleep to cure insomnia. Prescription and nonprescription sleep medications are only intended for occasional, short-term use—typically no longer than four to five weeks at the most. Over longer periods of time, these medications can contribute to sleep problems and lower the quality of your sleep.

If you continue to have insomnia after trying behavior modification for several weeks, talk to your health care provider or consider consulting with a who specializes in disorders.

Explore further: Why people with insomnia don't know they're asleep

9 shares

Related Stories

Why people with insomnia don't know they're asleep

March 29, 2018
When you can't get to sleep at night, you might explain it to someone as your brain not being able to shut off.

Children's sleep quality linked to mothers' insomnia

August 31, 2017
Children sleep more poorly if their mothers suffer from insomnia symptoms - potentially affecting their mental wellbeing and development - according to new research by the University of Warwick and the University of Basel.

People who worry about insomnia have more health problems than non-worriers, study finds

November 7, 2017
People who worry about poor sleep have more emotional and physical problems during the day than those who do not worry, regardless of how well either sleep, according to research conducted at The University of Alabama.

How to soothe yourself to sleep

October 30, 2017
Getting a good night of sleep can seem like the most effortless and natural thing in the world, but when we can't fall asleep it can quickly feel elusive and frustrating. There are a few techniques we can use to help us fall ...

Improving sleep in children with ADHD has some lessons for all parents

June 5, 2017
Every evening around the world, parents put their children to bed, hoping they'll go to sleep easily. For most parents that's exactly what happens. But for some kids, sleep does not come easily and evenings are a battle.

Mayo clinic minute: Let the dogs sleep in your room

October 27, 2017
When it comes to your pooch and your bed, the verdict is in. For a good night's sleep, there's no need to let the dog out of the bedroom when you're ready to go to sleep. A recent Mayo Clinic study found sleeping with your ...

Recommended for you

Self-lubricating latex could boost condom use: study

October 17, 2018
A perpetually unctuous, self-lubricating latex developed by a team of scientists in Boston could boost the use of condoms, they reported Wednesday in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

How healthy will we be in 2040?

October 17, 2018
A new scientific study of forecasts and alternative scenarios for life expectancy and major causes of death in 2040 shows all countries are likely to experience at least a slight increase in lifespans. In contrast, one scenario ...

Father's nicotine use can cause cognitive problems in children and grandchildren

October 16, 2018
A father's exposure to nicotine may cause cognitive deficits in his children and even grandchildren, according to a study in mice publishing on October 16 in the open-access journal PLOS Biology by Pradeep Bhide of Florida ...

Study finds evidence of intergenerational transmission of trauma among ex-POWs from the Civil War

October 16, 2018
A trio of researchers affiliated with the National Bureau of Economic Research has found evidence that suggests men who were traumatized while POWs during the U.S. Civil War transmitted that trauma to their offspring—many ...

Many supplements contain unapproved, dangerous ingredients: study

October 13, 2018
(HealthDay)—U.S. health officials have issued more than 700 warnings during the last decade about the sale of dietary supplements that contain unapproved and potentially dangerous drug ingredients, new research reveals.

Age at which women experience their first period is linked to their sons' age at puberty

October 12, 2018
The age at which young women experience their first menstrual bleeding is linked to the age at which their sons start puberty, according to the largest study to investigate this association in both sons and daughters.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.