Say Ah: Insomnia

By Donna Patrick, ANP
Special to the Sun Star

Q: I’m having a hard time sleeping. What can I do?

A: What you do during the day and evening can affect your sleep.  Poor eating and drinking habits with a lack of exercise can make it hard to fall asleep or to stay asleep.  Good sleep habits also called sleep hygiene can be helpful.  Many of them you may have heard of:

  • Sleep in a dark, quiet room that is at a comfortable temperature.  I hear the dorm rooms are very stuffy and hot, so open a window if needed. Bright lights can throw off your circadian rhythm, (the body’s natural wake-sleep cycle) so use an eye mask if your room mate likes to stay up later then you do.  Ear plugs work if you are easily distracted by noise.
  • Avoid using the computer or playing video games at bedtime.  They can stimulate you and keep you awake.
  • Only do activities which help you to relax before bed.  Some people find showers and baths very relaxing before bedtime although showering has been known to wake up other individuals.  Other relaxing measures are reading and listening to soothing music.
  • You’ve heard it before, but again, daily exercise helps relieve stress which can often lead to insomnia.  Just going for a daily brisk walk can help use up some nervous energy.
  • Go to bed at the same time and wake up at the same time every day.
  • Avoid naps.
  • Use your bed only for resting when ill, sleep or sex.
  • Avoid eating heavy meals close to bedtime.
  • Stop caffeine at least 6 hours before bedtime and limit how much you have during the day time.
  • If you smoke, quit.   Nicotine is a stimulant and will keep you awake.
  • Avoid the night cap.  Alcohol turns to sugar when you are sleeping and will most likely awaken you in the middle of the night.

Q: If I do all this and still can’t sleep is there anything I can take?

A: I know of two over the counter medicines that have worked for students.

  • Diphenhydramine or Benadryl was often used as a sleeping aid for patients in the hospital.  It is an antihistamine but has the side effect of drowsiness; helpful in inducing sleep. It can, however, take as long as one to three hours to take effect.   Because it can last from 4 to 7 hours, some people feel a bit groggy the following day after using it.
  • Melatonin has been getting more attention recently and has some compelling research backing it  as a sleep aid.  It is synthesized from the amino acid tryptophan and is a hormone produced by the pineal gland in the brain. The melatonin in dietary supplements is generally manufactured synthetically or extracted from plants; however, it is chemically identical to the melatonin in your body. Melatonin regulates circadian rhythms, triggering sleep. Levels of melatonin increase as exposure to light decreases, and decrease as light exposure increases.  To aid in falling asleep: Typically a dose of 2-3 mg of melatonin is taken one half-hour to one hour before bedtime, although recommendations vary from 0.5 to 5 mg.  It is not recommended for people who have a history of a seizure disorder.

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