Living With Insomnia

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: June 2020

Most people have the occasional restless night. However, insomnia is something different. People with insomnia have trouble getting to sleep, staying asleep, or waking up too early. Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder in the U.S. and one of the most common health complaints.1

Left untreated, insomnia can cause physical and mental health problems, and disrupt school and work. However, there are many everyday tips and techniques to help you live better with a sleep disorder.

Sleep habits that improve sleep

If you have insomnia, 1 of the first things you doctor will probably talk to you about are your sleep habits. This is also called sleep hygiene. Even simple changes can make a big difference in how well you sleep. Common suggestions include:2,3

  • Setting aside enough time to get 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night
  • Going to bed and waking up at the same times 7 days a week
  • Not using bright lights in the evening
  • Turning off electronic devices at least half an hour before bedtime
  • Making the bedroom comfortable and cool

There are many other daily habits you can use to improve insomnia. These are just a few.

Diet changes for insomnia

What you eat and drink can improve insomnia in many other ways, or make it worse. For instance, studies show that foods rich in magnesium can help insomnia. It is thought that magnesium helps the brain chemical GABA work.4

Alcohol, especially if consumed just before bedtime, may make it easier to fall asleep. But then you wake up during the night as your body processes the alcohol.5,6

Caffeine can be another double-edged sword for people with insomnia. Coffee, tea, energy drinks, and soda may help keep you alert the day after a difficult night’s sleep. But, too much caffeine can keep you up at night.7

Home remedies are as old as insomnia itself, and many can work well. Some common home remedies for insomnia include:8

  • A glass of warm milk or a cup of chamomile tea
  • Melatonin

Exercise and sleep

Working some exercise into your routine can help you sleep better at night. Even a daily walk of 30 minutes can improve your sleep. Exposure to light also helps maintain your circadian rhythms. Gentle stretches before bedtime can help you relax.9-11

Relaxation techniques for better sleep

For many people, the day’s tensions make it harder to fall asleep, stay asleep, or go back to sleep if they wake in the night. Insomnia can make that natural reaction to stress worse. That is why relaxation, meditation, breathing exercises, and mindfulness activities can help with insomnia.12

Other relaxing routines that work for some people with insomnia are:8

  • Lavender oil or other relaxing scent sprinkled on a pillow
  • A warm bath or shower before bedtime
  • Listening to soft music

School, work, and insomnia

Fatigue, poor mood, and problems concentrating are common in people with insomnia. All of these can impact school and work performance. In fact, studies show that high school and college students with sleep problems get lower grades and participate in fewer extracurricular activities.13

At work, people with insomnia tend to make more mistakes, perform less work, and miss more days work than their peers.14

Mental health and insomnia

Depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are common among people with insomnia. However, in most people, it is hard to tell which came first, the problems with sleep or the mental health issues. All of these conditions must be treated along with the insomnia for either condition to get better.1

Tracking your insomnia

Many smartphones, apps, and wearable devices now track sleep with different degrees of accuracy. These devices can give you a general idea of how much sleep you are getting and the quality of that sleep. But these devices do have limits.

First, most wearables use an accelerometer, or actigraphy, to sense motion. This means the device assumes that when you move you are awake and when you are still you are asleep. That may not be the case. Still, the results can increase your awareness of how deeply and how much you are sleeping. On the other hand, these devices also make many people more anxious about their sleep, which can make insomnia worse.15

Smoking and insomnia

Smoking and vaping can interfere with sleep because nicotine is a stimulant. If you have insomnia, your doctor may recommend that you stop smoking as one of many lifestyle changes to improve sleep.16,17

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