How to Overcome Insomnia - PIH Health

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Published on December 20, 2019

How to Overcome Insomnia

What is insomnia?

Photo of woman unable to sleepPhoto of woman unable to sleepYou’ve probably had nights when you couldn’t fall asleep, no matter how desperately you tried.

Insomnia means having trouble sleeping at night, staying asleep, or both. It is one of the most common sleep disorders. Episodes of insomnia that last a few days at a time are called short-term (acute) insomnia. Ongoing (chronic) insomnia is often diagnosed when you have ongoing problems with sleep.

Insomnia affects people in different ways. If you suffer from it, you may not be able to go to sleep or you may not be able to stay asleep. You might constantly wake up earlier than you would like, perhaps in the wee hours of the morning, and find yourself unable to go back to sleep. 

According to Nadeem Chisti MD, a PIH Health Pulmonologist, “Women are more likely to have insomnia than men. It's also more common among shift workers, who don't have consistent sleep schedules; people with low incomes; people who have a history of depression; and those who don't get much physical activity”.

What causes insomnia?

Insomnia has many possible causes. They can include any or all of these:

  • Medicines that interfere with sleep
  • Dietary choices, such as caffeine late in the day, that interfere with sleep
  • Stressful thoughts
  • Depression
  • Recent upheavals in your life, such as a divorce or death of a loved one
  • Hormone changes, such as those accompanying menopause
  • Bedtime habits that don't lead to restful sleep
  • Sleep disorders
  • Chronic pain
  • Medical conditions such as acid reflux, thyroid problems, stroke, or asthma
  • Substances like alcohol and nicotine
  • Travel, especially between time zones

How is insomnia diagnosed?

The process of making a diagnosis may include:

  • Your health history. Your doctor will consider any health conditions, any medicines you're taking, and stressful life changes that could be causing insomnia.
  • Your sleep history. Be prepared to describe your insomnia with details such as how long it's been going on, what you think could be contributing to it, and what your sleep is like, such as whether you can barely get to sleep at all or if you wake up too early.
  • Physical exam. The doctor will look for any physical reasons that could be causing sleep problems.
  • Sleep study. You may need to have a sleep study in a sleep lab where researchers monitor your sleep.

How is insomnia treated?

You have many options for treatment:

  • Medicines to help you get to sleep and stay asleep
  • Change in existing medicine if that's what's causing the problem
  • Counseling to help relieve stress and other issues bothering you
  • Change in lifestyle choices that may interfere with sleep
    • Don’t consume caffeine later in the day
    • Limit alcohol use
    • Increase your physical activity
  • Better-sleep bedtime habits, called "sleep hygiene"
    • Limit TV and smart device use before bed
    • Read a book or magazine instead of an electronic reader

The exact course will depend on what your doctor identifies as the possible causes of your insomnia. 

What are possible complications of insomnia?

Insomnia can have serious complications. Poor sleep quality is linked to:

  • Increased risk for heart disease
  • Increased risk for stroke
  • Increased risk for diabetes
  • Excessive weight gain or obesity
  • Depression
  • Increased risk for injury to yourself or others, such as a car accident caused by driving while drowsy

Next steps

For occasional insomnia, try lifestyle changes to see if that helps. If you suffer from chronic insomnia, call 562.789.5470 to make an appointment with Dr. Chisti or contact your Primary Care Physician (PCP). If you don’t have a PCP, visit PIHHealth.org/Find-a-Doctor.

The information in Healthy Living Online is for educational purposes only.  It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice.  The reader should always consult his or her healthcare provider to determine the appropriateness of the information for their own situation, or if they have any questions regarding a medical condition or treatment plan.

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