How Can I Stop My Insomnia?

There are almost as many ways to treat insomnia as there are people who can't sleep. Here are the symptoms, risks, causes, and treatments for insomnia, including what you can do tonight to finally get a good night's sleep.

What Is Insomnia?

How’d you sleep last night? If you answered, “Don’t ask,” congratulations—you’re a member of a club no one wants to be in. More than one-third of adults suffer from insomnia, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, and the problem tends to get worse, not better, as we age.

Insomnia is a common problem where people have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. People may wake up frequently in the middle of the night, wake up too early, or have a sleep quality that’s poor in general.

If sleep quality is so bad for so long (generally at least 1 to 3 months) that it makes it hard to function on a daily basis and causes anxiety and distress, then insomnia is considered a disorder, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. There are different types of insomnia, including short term, chronic, and more. (Here are the 7 types of insomnia that keep people up at night.)

No one needs to tell you that insomnia is more than a nuisance. It impairs cognitive and physical functioning. People with insomnia are more accident prone, miss work a lot, look as tired as they feel, gain weight, and may have a lousy sex life, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Chronic sleep problems—those that go on and on for decades—are even associated with a shorter life span and a greater risk of certain health conditions. (Although it can be tough to determine, which came first, the condition or the sleep problem, or if they share an underlying trigger.) Those conditions include:

  • Heart disease
  • Depression and other mental health disorders
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Substance abuse disorders
  • Dementia and other memory disorders

Insomnia Symptoms

Sleep doctors say you have insomnia if you have:

  • Difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep or getting only nonrestorative sleep;
  • Difficulty sleeping despite the right opportunity and circumstances (so, if you can’t sleep because your neighbors are playing drums all night, blame them, not insomnia);
  • Lack of sleep that causes distress and makes you basically useless during the day (Thomas Edison hardly slept at all and considered it a complete waste of time, but he was a genius inventor, not an insomniac).
  • Your sleep difficulties occur at least three times per week and have been a problem for at least one month (some experts say three months).

If you did a quick self-check and the above describes your situation, you likely spend a lot of time coping with the consequences.

Insomnia Causes

What causes insomnia? Insomnia can be primary or secondary. Primary insomnia can’t be explained by any existing issues like a mental health condition, drug or medication use, or physical issue, like pain, according to the AASM.

Secondary insomnia is a sleep problem that’s related to a medical condition, such as a mental or physical health issue, or other sleep conditions. Related conditions include narcolepsy, sleep apnea, jet lag, restless legs syndrome, or sleep issues caused by shift work, medication side effects, or a chronic health problem, such as pain. Some health conditions that can trigger insomnia are Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, an enlarged prostate, gastroesophageal reflux disease, arthritis, asthma, depression, kidney or heart failure, anxiety, and many more.

All of these call for specific treatment plans that may or may not help people with primary insomnia.

Insomnia Treatments

If you’ve ruled out other health conditions or problems as the cause of your insomnia, there are potential solutions that may help fix your sleepless nights. You’re probably somewhat familiar with the countless tips (lavender oil!), tricks (count backwards from 15), and tested methods for turning yourself into a better sleeper. There’s really no bad advice, as long as it doesn’t hurt your health or your wallet. So start with these easy ways to get a good night’s sleep. There are also specific treatment options for insomnia, ranging from behavioral therapy to over-the-counter and prescription medications to self-care and natural approaches. A few big-picture suggestions include:

Get your stress under control. Stress is a huge contributor to insomnia. You can’t control the stock market or global warming (assuming these make you stressed out) but you can take your responses down a notch and soothe your nervous system. How? Studies show that yoga, meditation, qui gong, stretching, and many other mindful movement exercises can do wonders to zap stress and help you get some zzzzs. Best of all, you can do all of the above privately.

Clean up your eating habits. OK, there’s no diet proven to cure insomnia, but what you eat and avoid can make a big difference. Try these foods to help you get a good night’s sleep. Drinks count too. You probably know to stay away from caffeine, but the same rule applies to alcohol. That glass of red with dinner might make you sleepier, but it’s likely to wake you up at 3 a.m. If you like herbal tea or warm milk with a drop of honey before bed, go for it. Some people say they make you feel more relaxed.

Make your room a sleep zone. If you have insomnia, chances are you spend hours in bed reading, texting, and watching movies. Stop that. Use your bed and bedroom for sleep and sex only. If you are lying in bed and have not been able to fall back asleep for more than 15 minutes, sleep experts recommend that you go to another room and engage in a relaxing activity until you’re drowsy, then go to bed.

Check your environment. If you have insomnia, you know that the littlest things—a sliver of light under the door, the sound of a flushing the toilet—can keep you awake all night long. Avoid these distractions by turning your bedroom into a sleeper’s dream, with blackout shades and curtains, a soothing white noise machine, and the softest, coziest bed sheets you can find. Keep the temperature at a rest-inducing 68 to 72 degrees.

Try technology. There are a lot of products out there that promise to help you sleep. Some find a “wakeup light” can help. You set it at night, and a gentle glow will gradually increase to mimic sunlight when it’s time to wake up. Others swear by noise-blocking headphones, special mattresses, or tracking your sleep habits or relaxing with the help of an app, such as Headspace or Pzizz. You can try listening to ASMR videos (which stands for autonomous sensory meridian response), which use soothing, repetitive sounds like whispering, crinkling paper, or tapping to help promote relaxation and sleep.

Try therapy. If your insomnia resists any efforts to change, you may want to consider behavioral therapy by a mental health professional or another trained healthcare provider. You’ll probably need several in-office visits to learn and apply pro-sleep techniques. If your sleep resists these offers, you might consider having a sleep study or your doctor might refer you to a sleep clinic.

Explore natural remedies. If you’ve tried everything except sleep medication—and you’d rather not take drugs—there are natural remedies with real evidence behind them. For sleep, these include the herbal supplements melatonin, chamomile, and valerian, as well as alternative treatments like acupuncture and biofeedback. Be careful here, because this area is largely unregulated, and there are lots of companies selling products that may be useless or even harmful. Check with your doctor first before moving forward with alternative and complementary treatments.

Consider medication. Over-the-counter or prescription sleep aids help many with insomnia, and there are lots to choose from. Most people take sleep aids a few nights or a few weeks at a time. If you have to use it for more than two weeks or more often than once a week on average, you need to check with your doctor. And yes, there are side effects, and yes, you can become dependent or even addicted. Avoid those risks by working with your doctor on a game plan for evaluating their effectiveness and weaning off when your sleep improves.

Don’t neglect sleep hygiene. Good sleep hygiene includes everything from sleeping with minimal bedding to setting your thermostat to the optimal sleep temperature—65. Sticking to a set sleep and wake schedule and not taking frequent naps are also important.

tired young man sitting on bed looking at smartphoneWestend61/Getty Images

The Science of Insomnia

There’s plenty of research on insomnia, yet no clear understanding of why some people have it while others don’t.

The underlying function of sleep seems to be restorative. Most adults require seven to eight hours of sleep, although this number varies, and some people feel rested and refreshed with less or more. Getting too little sleep creates a “sleep debt” that must be repaid, which is bad news for those who never get enough. One function of sleep is to replenish blood sugar (energy) levels in the brain, which fall during the day. That’s why insomniacs often walk around in a brain fog, with their judgment, reaction time, and mental and physical functions measurably impaired. Studies of animals and people deprived of sleep show that it eventually leads to increased infections, hallucinations, and eventually, death.

If sleep is that important, why does insomnia exist? Recently, researchers have begun to think about insomnia as a problem of hyperarousal. In other words, your brain thinks it should stay vigilant, especially at night. This is helpful if you’re a primitive cave man guarding his family from a saber-toothed tiger. Not helpful if you’re a modern human trying to doze off. Hyperarousal can be a side effect of any number of health issues, medications, or age. Or it could just the way your brain is wired. That’s OK. There’s a lot you can do to convince your brain that there’s no tiger out there and it’s time to get some rest. As the population ages, a growing percentage of us will have sleep problems, and more research on insomnia is sure to be conducted. Hopefully this will move us closer to a cure.

Personal Stories

Stories of people who can’t sleep are everywhere, because insomnia is too. Here are some that show what it’s like to live with and recover from this problem.

Share Your Story

Are you coping with insomnia? Do you know someone who is? Do you miss out on major life events because you’re too tired? We want to hear your story. We believe that sharing your knowledge and experience about a personal health issue or challenge can take you one step closer to feeling better about or solving that issue for yourself.

We may use your story in future content that may help other people who are dealing with insomnia.

Share Your Story

Helpful Products for Better Sleep

If you’re trying to get better sleep, the list of products that promise to help is nearly endless. It may take a bit of trial and error to see what works for you, but here are some products, from pillows to blankets to light therapy lamps, that may help.

Additional Resources

If you need additional help with insomnia, where do you go next? Here are some foundations, government organization, medical societies, and Facebook groups that may help.

Sources
Medically reviewed by Renata Chalfin, MD, on May 14, 2020

Amy O'Connor
Amy O'Connor is Editor in Chief of Healthination.com, a leading developer of premium video and other content. She also teaches journalism at New York University and the City University of New York.