Do you ever wake up feeling like you barely slept at all, or as if the quantity or quality of your sleep has left you feeling groggy, unrefreshed or irritable? If so, you are among the one-third of Australians and one-quarter of New Zealanders who report having trouble with sleep. Insomnia is characterised by the difficulty in falling asleep, difficulty in staying asleep, waking up too early and not being able to get back to sleep, or feeling tired after waking up.
The problem can be acute, meaning it lasts for a short period time, perhaps due to a specific situation such as jet lag or travel to a place with different time zones, or anxiety and stress over such things as a new job, an important work assignment, or final exams. But insomnia can also be a chronic problem, which means it happens at least three nights a week for one month or more, even with the opportunity to sleep.
As you can imagine, or maybe have experienced, ongoing disturbances in sleep, such as chronic insomnia, can lead to difficulties in daily functioning, physical well-being, and even more serious health issues. In fact, sleep disorders may possibly be linked to a growing number of health problems, such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity, cancer and high blood pressure.
Diagnosing Sleep Disorders
Your doctor can diagnose a sleep disorder by conducting a thorough review of your medication history, medical history, and sleep history. Your doctor can also conduct a complete physical examination to identify other health conditions and/or observable issues that may be impacting your sleep.
Be prepared to answer questions such as the following:
- How long did it take you to fall asleep last night?
- How long did you sleep last night?
- After falling asleep, how many times did you wake from your sleep? How much time did you spend awake?
- How would you rate the quality of your sleep last night?
In some cases, your doctor may send you to a sleep specialist or a sleep lab. This may involve taking a monitor home with you to use at night, or staying overnight at a sleep lab, where you are being studied while asleep. Sleep lab studies can determine if the cause of your sleep disorder is due to disruptions in breathing, such as with sleep apnea, or movement disorders, such as restless leg syndrome, sleepwalking or nightmare disorders.
Lifestyle Recommendations—What You Can Do About Sleep
Your doctor will probably suggest that you first try a few lifestyle changes to see if developing better sleep habits can help with your insomnia. These recommendations may include:
- Reducing alcohol intake, which can make you fall asleep initially, but may disrupt your sleep later in the night
- Cutting back on caffeine, which is a stimulant, as it may keep you up, especially when you drink a lot of coffee or tea, or drink it late in the day
- Not smoking tobacco products close to bedtime because they are stimulating and can cause sleep disturbances (and, ultimately, quitting because nicotine is addictive and harmful to your health)
- Avoiding heavy meals close to bedtime, which can cause discomfort, making it difficult to relax. Spicy foods may also cause heartburn, which interferes with sleep for some people
- Losing weight, which can sometimes help to resolve certain sleep disruption causes
- Exercising during the day, which is associated with improved nighttime sleep
- Keeping your bed and bedroom a quiet, sleep-only environment, which means not using technology in bed such as TV, smart phone, tablet, electronic games; or to do anything else but sleep
- Creating bedtime routines, which can help you get to bed at the same time every night and get up at the same time in the morning
- Giving yourself enough time to relax, rest and sleep, even when there’s so much going on, and allowing yourself 7 or 8 hours a night if you are an adult or more if you are a teen or younger
Your doctor will also want to uncover any underlying illnesses or conditions you may have and offer an appropriate treatment plan to help get you on your way to a healthier body and a healthier night’s sleep. There are also over-the-counter medications or prescription medications that may help in the short-term to address your insomnia and restore your sleep.
So, if you suffer from any form of insomnia, whether it is short-term or ongoing, discuss the problem with your doctor.
Verne W. Pitman, PharmD, was previously a senior director of primary care clinical specialties at Pfizer.
- 1. 2016 Sleep Health Survey of Australian Adults. University of Adelaide.
- 2. Paine SH, Gander PH. Prevalence and consequences of insomnia in New Zealand: disparities between Maori and non-Maori. Aust N Z J Public Health 2005;29(1):22-8