Insomnia is not a myth. For millions of Americans, it is a frustrating, agonizing problem, affecting both their mental and physical health. But the good news is that there are ways to help. In order to help, however, it’s important to understand some common myths about insomnia and learn some important tips for treating it.
Why Sleep Is So Important
First, if you’re consistently struggling to fall asleep or stay asleep, this is an issue that needs intervention. Healthy sleep is just as crucial as a good diet and exercise. Your quality of sleep not only affects your brain’s performance and moods, but poor sleep patterns can raise the risk of many physical health conditions like heart disease, obesity, and dementia.
NIH sleep experts note three factors for healthy sleep:
- How much sleep you get
- Uninterrupted sleep
- A consistent schedule
When you sleep, your brain remains active, and the work it does for you is vital. As you sleep, your brain removes toxins from your body, and it repairs things like blood vessels and the immune system. When your sleep is disturbed, so are these critical processes.
Types of Insomnia
The basic definition of insomnia is a sleep disorder that inhibits you from falling asleep and/or staying asleep, and/or waking up too early and then not being able to go back to sleep. This disorder can be short-term or long-term. If insomnia occurs more than three nights a week for more than three months, it is considered chronic (long-term).
The two major types of insomnia are primary and secondary. When your sleep issues are not related to any other health conditions, you have primary insomnia. Secondary insomnia, then, is when your sleep problems are correlated with another health issue like asthma, cancer, depression, PTSD, or substance use/abuse. And chronic insomnia can also be caused by things like poor diet, poor sleep habits, or disruptive travel/work schedules.
Other effects or symptoms of insomnia may include:
- Not feeling well-rested after waking
- Feeling tired or sleepy during the day
- Feeling irritable or anxious as well as depressed
- Experiencing lower performance or an increase in errors or accidents
- Having difficulty remembering, paying attention, or focusing on tasks
Whatever type of insomnia you are experiencing or have experienced in the past, it’s important to understand what isn’t true about this condition just as much as its facts. This way you can seek proper recourse and treatment.
There are quite a few myths about insomnia that can deter or impede someone’s progress and proper treatment:
Myth #1: Good sleep is just about the number of hours.
Not true! While seven or more hours is the recommended amount – the quality of your sleep is equally important. Health factors like heartburn or sleep apnea, diet factors like drinking alcohol or caffeine, or lifestyle factors like electronic use at bedtime can all affect your quality of sleep and leave you feeling tired when you wake up.
Myth #2: You can always catch up on your sleep later.
False! Unfortunately, this is not true. Sleeping in on another day or napping does not actually help you catch up on the sleep you lost. In fact, oversleeping on some days versus others may actually worsen your insomnia symptoms.
Myth #3: You should just lay in bed until you finally fall asleep.
The truth is that just laying awake in bed is not the best strategy – especially if you’re experiencing anxiety over sleep. This can actually train your brain to associate negative feelings with your bed/bedroom. If you find yourself struggling to fall asleep after 20 minutes, get up and do a relaxing activity before trying again.
Myth #4: Insomnia is just in your head.
False. The fact is that insomnia is a medically-recognized disorder, which 1 in 7 adults experience chronically.
Myth #5: If you can’t wake up without an alarm clock then you aren’t getting enough sleep.
The truth is that people with insomnia often wake up without an alarm clock. A sleep cycle includes deep sleep and REM sleep, and according to the NIH, a normal night’s sleep should include about 4-6 sleep cycles. If a person wakes up in the middle of a cycle, they may still feel tired even if they achieved the recommended amount of sleep.
Myth #6: Napping helps insomnia.
Not entirely true. While naps can be beneficial, napping too late in the day can negatively impact your sleep cycles and quality of sleep. The Mayo Clinic recommends short naps (approx. 20 minutes) before 3 PM. Late naps and naps that are too long can exacerbate your insomnia and make you feel disoriented after you wake up.
Myth #7: Watching TV helps insomnia.
False. Studies have shown that screen time before going to sleep or after waking up in the middle of the night negatively impacts a person’s quality of sleep – especially in young children. Watching TV, playing video games, or cell phone activity can stimulate your brain and reduce the amount of sleep you get in a night.
Myth #8: Alcohol helps insomnia.
Not true. In fact, alcohol can make insomnia worse. While alcohol may make a person feel drowsy at first, studies have shown that it alters sleep cycles and can cause a person to wake up throughout the night or wake up earlier than normal.
Myth #9: There’s really nothing you can do about insomnia – it is difficult to treat.
False. Evidence-based treatments do exist. One of the primary ones, which we employ, is cognitive-behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I), which focuses on learning healthy ways to manage and cope with difficult situations and emotions. CBT for insomnia can help a person learn practical techniques for improving sleep. If a medical professional determines it is necessary, prescription medication is also available for treatment.
Tips for Treating Insomnia
Besides CBT-I and medications, there are other methods for improving sleep. Here are some of the best ways you can try and improve your sleep patterns and quality of sleep:
- Set a schedule – and stick to it. Go to bed and get up at the same time every day. Setting a schedule is usually part of recommended stimulus control therapy in CBT-I, so this is a very important step in treating sleep disorders.
- Exercise – but avoid exercising too close to bedtime. Studies show that aerobic exercise benefits slow-wave sleep, which helps your brain and body rejuvenate. Exercising also helps your mood, which can positively affect your sleep cycle. Because exercising can release endorphins and raise body temperature (which tells your body to be awake), it’s recommended that people do not exercise one to three hours before bedtime.
- Enjoy the outdoors – Get outside and get at least 30 minutes of sunlight. Multiple research studies have shown that daylight not only positively affects mood but can improve sleep outcomes. In one particular, recent study, participants spent an average of 2 ½ hours outside and reported fewer insomnia symptoms, feeling less tired, and having an easier time waking up.
- Avoid stimulants like caffeine and nicotine. Besides caffeinated drinks like tea, soda, and coffee, you should also avoid foods that contain caffeine like chocolate. Most experts concur that 600 mg of caffeine a day is too much. For reference, there is usually about 200 mg of caffeine in 10 oz of coffee, and it takes about 10 hours for caffeine to completely leave your body.
- Don’t eat large meals before bedtime – Eating right before bed can disrupt circadian rhythms. Certain foods can also cause acid reflux, especially when laying in bed. In addition, avoid alcohol consumption 3-4 hours before you go to sleep.
- Avoid using electronics right before you go to bed. Electronic devices like cell phones, and tablets emit blue light. Studies have shown that blue light reduces the natural production of melatonin and feelings of sleepiness. It can also reduce the amount of time you spend in slow-wave and REM sleep, which are both critical for optimal cognitive functioning.
- Create a relaxing environment – This is also usually part of stimulus control therapy. Keeping your room temperature cool, keeping it dark, and keeping it free from distractions are all important to creating an environment that promotes healthy sleep.
- Try meditation – While this practice has been around for thousands of years, modern science is just beginning to understand its health benefits. Modern imaging techniques have discovered that “meditation can positively affect your brain and mental health.”
The Ross Center is fully experienced in providing competent, evidence-based treatment for insomnia and other related mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression.
If you are struggling with insomnia, we encourage you to reach out and seek help. Take the first step in getting the all-important sleep you need for a happy, productive, and fulfilling life.
We are located in Washington, D.C., Vienna, VA, and New York, NY. Contact us today!