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Lifestyle changes could end sleepless nights

by Doris Penner

            Are you sick of tossing and turning at night? Do you wake up in the morning feeling almost too tired to get out of bed? For sure we could all use more beauty sleep, but aside from that, insomnia can take a toll on your mood, energy and ability to function during the day, as well as increase the risk of serious health problems. Insomnia is a common problem which can range from mild (an issue solved by making a few lifestyle changes) to serious (an issue that may take medical intervention and supplements).

            If you are suffering from insomnia, the first step to better sleep is figuring out why you have difficulty dropping off, or consistently wake up in the middle of the night with no recourse but to watch the clock slowly tick its way to 6 or 7 a.m. Once you have a handle on the root cause, you can take appropriate steps to treat the condition. Experts say that emotional issues such as depression, stress and anxiety cause half of all insomnia cases. It is apparent that dealing with the underlying cause will help you sleep better—often easier said than done. Some stresses in life are of short duration, however, and will pass, while others are more deep-seated and will need intervention from a professional (such as post-traumatic stress disorder or a mental disorder such as bipolar, for example).

Medical conditions

            Some medical conditions including allergies, Parkinson’s disease, acid reflux, kidney disease, some types of cancer and chronic pain can cause insomnia. As well, medications you are taking may add to sleeplessness. These include some antidepressants, cold and flu medications that contain alcohol, diuretics, high blood pressure medications and some that contain caffeine (e.g. Midol). In these situations, you need to talk to your physician about your concerns. Perhaps there are alternative medications that can be tried.

            There are, however, many small lifestyle changes one can make that may just put an end to insomnia. These include things like making sure your bedroom is quiet, dark and cool, sticking to a regular sleep schedule (difficult when doing shift work), avoiding stimulating activities or stressful situations just before bedtime, and limiting alcohol, caffeine and nicotine several hours before bedtime. It should be noted that individuals react differently to stimulants such as caffeine and nicotine—for some, a cup of coffee or cigarette at bedtime may be just enough to keep them from relaxing. While alcohol may make one feel sleepy, it will interfere with quality of sleep.

            One factor that is often overlooked is the role the hormone melatonin plays in the sleep-wake cycle. Melatonin is produced in the pineal gland in darkness; it sends signals to let the brain know when it is time for sleep. Artificial light in the evenings—such as iPads, computers and high-voltage bulbs will inhibit production of melatonin, thus adding to sleeplessness. The solution is obvious—avoid any type of bright light an hour before going to bed. That includes not reading from a backlit eReader in bed and keeping light in the bedroom low.

Might consider supplements

            If you have made lifestyle changes that are necessary and still have trouble falling asleep, you might look at sleeping aids or supplements. It is wise to start with something mild and available over-the-counter at health food stores or pharmacies, then move to the more potent if the first isn’t effective. The last resort should be prescription sleeping pills.

            Some herbal teas contain substances that help one relax just enough to bring on sleep. Ones that have received high marks for being effective are chamomile, lemon balm, passion flower, peppermint and lavender—or a combination of two or more—which contain flavonoids that produce a mild sedative effect or perhaps boost production of certain amino acids in the brain to promote a sense of calm. While scientific tests have not shown conclusively that these herbs help combat insomnia, there are many positive testimonials. It is likely true that any hot drink taken in the comfort of home while reading, or having a quiet conversation works as a calming agent.

            Other natural compounds that have been used to deal with insomnia are hops and valerian which are usually combined with other sleep-enhancing substances and brought to market as tablets, liquids or sprays. It should be noted that these products—although “natural,”—contain potent ingredients that may have side effects and thus it is important to follow dosage instructions carefully. Melatonin which may help induce sleep is also available over-the-counter, but is in a class of its own since it is not plant-based. Never take too many different types of sleep aids at one time—it may prove to be too much for your system. If in doubt, consult your physician.