CBNNews.com - VIRGINIA BEACH - Nearly 50 percent of Americans don't get enough sleep.
This insomnia comes in two forms: either folks can't fall asleep or they can't stay asleep.
This may explain why sleeping pills are some of the most widely prescribed medications in America. But sleep experts say those medications often do more harm than good, and should only be considered when other methods to fight insomnia have failed.
Like millions of Americans, Eldora Snowden ignores her alarm clock every morning, pushing the snooze button at least once.
"It's almost torture," she claims. "Because when it goes off, at that point I can feel that my body finally fell asleep. But now I have to get up and I have to struggle in order to get up."
Signs of Sleep Deprivation
Snowden says she wakes up in the middle of the night and can't fall back asleep. That's a classic sign of sleep deprivation.
Other clues are: irritability, grogginess, difficulty concentrating or staying awake during meetings or classes and trying to catch-up on sleep on the weekends.
"Well, I know that I have insomnia and I do not sleep well at all," Snowden explained.
People like Snowden often first reach for the sleeping pills, when in reality it should be one of the last resorts.
Dr. Catesby Ware of the Sentara Sleep Center of Norfolk, Virginia says this medication is addictive, can have serious side effects and can cause drowsiness during the day.
Why Am I Not Sleeping?
"The person spends time trying to figure out what the best sleeping pill is, which is completely wrong," Dr. Ware pointed out. "What you should spend time doing is trying to figure out, why am I not sleeping?"
One reason can be your diet. Too much caffeine can be a culprit. So cut out coffee, tea, soda, even chocolate, eight hours before bedtime or better yet, altogether.
Don't eat within two hours of bedtime, avoiding big meals and alcohol, which can knock you out, but later wake you up. And nix the spicy or fatty foods, because they can cause heartburn, which interferes with sleep.
If you really want a great night's sleep, turn your bedroom into a true sleep chamber. That means eliminating anything your brain associates with wakefulness. So when you're in bed, don't do things like watch TV, pay the bills or have tense conversations.
In fact, if you worry in bed, think about something calm, or get out of bed and go to another room and take a paper and pend and write down your problems. This subconsciously transfers them from your mind to the paper, relieving stress, so you can go back to bed.
Regular exercise, particularly in the afternoon, can have you sleeping like a baby. So can taking a warm shower or bath before bed.
When you are in the bedroom, lower the thermostat, keep it dark and quiet, and if there are still issues, use a sleep mask and earplugs.
Make sure you go to bed and wake up at the same time everyday, even on weekends. And since nicotine is a stimulant, stop smoking.
If these tips don't work, see your doctor. He or she may refer you to a sleep center, where more serious sleep disorders are identified and treated.
Underlying Physical Problems
Les Ward is one of the patients at the Sentara Sleep Center. He fell asleep while driving and hit another vehicle. Now his employer won't let him drive, unless these tests can show it was an isolated incident.
"What we're trying to see is if you put him in a relatively dark, quiet room where he's a little bit upright, how well does he stay awake?," Dr. Robert Vorona asked.
"Because if you think about it, let's say you're a truck driver, do I really care how quickly you fall asleep or do I really care if you can marshall your forces and stay awake?" Vorona said.
For the test, Les stares at the wall for 40 minutes while doctors monitor his movements and body functions.
"He says if I stay awake he'll give me a letter certifying me to drive," Ward said. "So far I've done it three times and I've stayed awake all three times, so one more time and doc, you'd better start writing the letter," he chuckled.
Many sleep disorders are brought on by underlying physical problems, like obesity, or emotional issues, like depression. Doctors say by addressing root causes and changing some behavior, most people can sleep well and wake refreshed for life.
*Originally published December 17, 2008