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What to Do About Insomnia

Insomnia is a sleep disorder that causes people to have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or not feeling rested when they wake up. Changes in sleep patterns are a normal part of the aging process and many older adults have difficulty falling or staying asleep. However, your need for sleep doesn’t decline as you get older. Most adults function best when they get 7 to 8 hours of sleep each day.

Why can’t I sleep?

If you aren’t sleeping well and you suffer from daytime drowsiness, irritability, and problems with concentration, memory or reflexes, you should talk to your doctor about insomnia. Many cases are caused by emotional factors such as stress, anxiety, depression, grief, or poor sleep habits.

It’s important to find out if an untreated medical condition is causing your insomnia. Sleep apnea, cardiovascular disease, bladder/prostate problems and dementia/Alzheimer’s disease can all cause sleeplessness.

Your doctor might ask you to keep a sleep diary. Each night, you’ll record your bedtime, how long it takes you to fall asleep, any periods of wakefulness, what time you woke, and the quality of your sleep. The diary might identify patterns in your sleep cycle or bad habits that can be addressed.

How to cure insomnia

Mild insomnia can often be addressed by improving your sleep habits. This means adopting behaviors and lifestyle changes that help you get to sleep, and avoiding those tend to increase alertness and keep you awake. Good sleep habits include:

  • Using your bed only for sleeping. Avoid television, electronic devices, eating and working while in bed.
  • Avoiding alcohol and cigarettes in the evening and before bed.
  • Drinking coffee, tea and other caffeinated beverages only in the morning.
  • Sleeping only long enough to feel rested, then getting out of bed.
  • Not trying to “force” sleep. If you aren’t asleep after 20 minutes, get up, go to another room and read or find another relaxing activity until you feel sleepy.
  • Going to bed and getting up at the same time each day—even on weekends.
  • Avoiding naps during the day.
  • Exercising for at least 20 minutes each day—preferably 4-6 hours prior to bedtime.
  • Keeping your bedroom/sleep environment cool, quiet and dark.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is often used to treat sleep disorders. It can help you control negative thoughts and worries that keep you awake. CBT can eliminate a cycle that sometimes develops where people worry so much about getting to sleep that they can't fall asleep.  This therapy can also give you new ways to handle stress during the day.

Sleep aids

Your doctor may prescribe a pharmaceutical sleep aid as a bridge therapy until behavioral techniques begin helping you sleep, or suggest a combination of a sleep aid and behavioral therapy. Some sleep aids are only available by prescription because long-term use can be habit-forming. Sleep medications work best as a short-term treatment combined with lifestyle and behavior changes.  Always use them with the input of your doctor.

Natural and alternative medicine

Some people use natural dietary supplements like melatonin and valerian as insomnia cures, but their safety and effectiveness haven’t been scientifically proved. Acupuncture has shown some benefit, but more study is needed.