Some actions to take to get a good night’s sleep

Originally published by the Kingston Whig-Standard. The other night my little black cat nudged and clawed me until I woke up. She was lonely and she needed me to pet her, which I grudgingly did. Once awake I started thinking about what I needed to do in the morning, what I had forgotten to do the previous day and, after a long time laying there, of all the things that could potentially go wrong in my life, ever. I am no stranger to sleeping difficulties and I am in good company; in 2002, 3.3 million Canadians had insomnia.

For those suffering with chronic insomnia, nighttime can be torturous. Insomniacs lie awake until the wee hours and often feel tired all day. It’s made all the worse when a loved one is lying nearby blissfully off in Dreamland.

Not getting enough sleep sets you up for a day of poor impulse control. It is difficult to concentrate, and therefore difficult to be productive. Sufferers are more susceptible to making poor food choices because their self-control is reduced. I have also found that many seemingly unrelated symptoms are aggravated by poor sleep, especially pain and hot flashes.

Like many health conditions, prevention is the best treatment for insomnia. There are some very specific actions you can take to increase your chances of sleeping easily.

Humans are creatures of habit. Our bodies respond well to routine. If you keep a relatively regular bedtime, your body will begin to prepare in advance by increasing levels of the sleep hormone melatonin.

Melatonin is also affected by light levels. That means it is important to make your sleeping area as dark as possible. The more light, the less melatonin, the poorer your quality of sleep and vice-versa. Most people find that sleeping in a cool room is better than a hot room. Distractions, such as pets, should be kept out of the room (a piece of advice I do not follow, to my detriment).

Sometimes good sleep evades us even if we have taken all the proper measures, or we are going through a particular life event that makes sleep more difficult. There are a few different things you can try when you are in the throes of a bout of insomnia.

If you are like me, when you are unable to fall asleep, your thoughts start racing. The thoughts tend to be about tasks that need to be done, and for the more anxious among us, things that could go wrong. All the worry only increases our wakefulness. A simple solution that I have found very effective is called the ‘Mental Dump’. Take some blank paper and a pen. Write out all the things that are on your mind. Do not let your hand stop moving for at least five minutes. When your worries are down on paper, your mind does not need to keep bringing them up.

Many different herbal teas have a hypnotic (sleep-inducing) effect: chamomile, lavender, valerian, skullcap, catnip, linden and lemonbalm, to name a few. Steep the tea for at least five minutes with a cover on it to prevent the active ingredients from evaporating. The trick is to find the combination that works for you. My personal favourite is catnip, lavender and chamomile — it is delicious and it knocks me out.

The hormone melatonin can be taken as a supplement. The finicky thing with melatonin is to find the dose that is correct for you. If you do not notice any effect, you are not using enough. If you feel groggy in the morning, you are using too much. Do not combine melatonin with central nervous system depressants, like sleeping pills, because theoretically, they could have a combined effect.

If you have tried everything to get some zzz’s and nothing seems to be working, maybe you have an underlying medical condition. Some drugs and herbal remedies can cause insomnia as well.

Insomnia is often associated with psychiatric conditions such as depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicide. It can also be precipitated by a major social stress. Sometimes these social stresses are unavoidable, such as when a loved one passes away. Other times, something can be done, such as when stress arises from disharmony in the workplace.

Chronic pain is another common cause of insomnia. If you suffer chronic pain, I recommend searching for effective treatment; there are so many options available from acupuncture to surgery.

The list of medications that can cause insomnia is long: decongestants, antidepressants, corticosteroids, beta-agonists, beta-antagonists, stimulants and statins. If you are taking one or more of these medications and experiencing insomnia, ask your healthcare provider if an alternative is available.

There are various other potentially treatable conditions that can cause insomnia: sleep apnea, low physical activity level, and frequent urination, for example. If you know of something that is impacting your sleep, ask a healthcare provider for help with it.

Sleep is like technology — we take it for granted while it is working right and it disrupts everything when it’s malfunctioning. It is worth trouble-shooting your sleep to see if you can get a better quality of shut-eye. As for me, my little black cat now seems to prefer hunting at night; problem solved!

Andrea Hilborn