Stress is considered by most sleep experts to be the No. 1 cause of short-term sleeping difficulties. Common triggers include school- or job-related pressures, a family or marriage problem, and a serious illness or death in the family. Usually the sleep problem disappears when the stressful situation passes. However, if short term sleep problems such as insomnia aren't managed properly from the beginning, they can persist long after the original stress has passed.
That's why it's a good idea to talk to a physician about any sleeping problem that recurs or persists for longer than one week.
Your doctor can help you take steps early to control or prevent poor sleep. Since insomnia can also be brought on by depression, evaluation by a healthcare professional is essential.
Without realizing it, you may be doing things during the day or night that can work against getting a good night's sleep. These include drinking alcohol or beverages containing caffeine in the afternoon or evening, exercising close to bedtime, following an irregular morning and nighttime schedule, and working or doing other mentally intense activities right before or after getting into bed.
If you are among the 17 percent of employees in the United States who are shift workers, sleep may be particularly elusive. Shift work forces you to try to sleep when activities around you - and your own "biological rhythms" - signal you to be awake. One study shows that shift workers are two to five times more likely than employees with regular, daytime hours to fall asleep on the job.
Still another sleep stealer is jet lag, an inability to sleep caused when you travel across several time zones and your biological rhythms get "out of sync."
A distracting sleep environment such as a room that's too hot or cold, too noisy or too brightly lit can be a barrier to sound sleep. And interruptions from children or other family members can also disrupt sleep. Other influences to pay attention to are the comfort and size of your bed and the habits of your sleep partner. If you have to lie beside someone who has different sleep preferences, snores, can't fall or stay asleep, or has other sleep difficulties, it often becomes your problem too!
A number of physical problems can interfere with your ability to fall or stay asleep. For example, arthritis and other conditions that cause pain, backache, or discomfort can make it difficult to sleep well. Sleep apnea, which is recognized by snoring and interrupted breathing, causes brief awakenings (often unnoticed) and excessive daytime sleepiness. If suspected, a person having signs of sleep apnea should see a doctor.
Disorders that cause involuntary limb movements during sleep, such as Restless Legs Syndrome, break up the normal sleep pattern and are also likely to make sleep less refreshing and result in daytime sleepiness.
For women, pregnancy and hormonal shifts including those that cause premenstrual syndrome (PMS) or menopause and its accompanying hot flashes can also intrude on sleep.
In addition, certain medications such as decongestants, steroids and some medicines for high blood pressure, asthma, or depression can cause sleeping difficulties as a side effect.
When Do You Need to Seek Help?
If your sleep problems persist for longer than a week and are bothersome, or if sleepiness interferes with the way you feel or function during the day, a doctor's help may be needed. To get the most out of your doctor's visit, you'll find that it is often helpful to keep a diary of your sleep habits for about ten days to identify just how much sleep you're getting over a period of time and what you may be doing to interfere with it. It can help you document your problem in a way that your physician can best understand.
If the problem is the time it takes to fall asleep, staying asleep or waking up unrefreshed, your doctor may recommend lifestyle changes or behavioral approaches to treating the problem. However, lifestyle changes alone may not be enough. Treating insomnia with medication is the most common treatment for these sleep problems. In most cases, medication is only used until the immediate stressor is under control or lifestyle changes have had a chance to work.
While many individuals will try an over-the-counter medicine to help them sleep, these should be taken with caution. Your physician or pharmacist can help inform you about the different types of medications available and which would be most effective for you. Alcohol should not be used as a sleep aid.
For sleep apnea or other sleep disorders, your doctor may want to do a sleep study that will provide more information about your sleep pattern and whether you are breathing regularly while you sleep.
The bottom line is this: Adequate sleep is as essential to health and peak performance as exercise and good nutrition. If you aren't getting enough, talk to your physician. You deserve it.