Insomnia: Why Sleeping Pills Are Not the Answer

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Insomnia comes in two forms: people who can't fall asleep to begin with and people who fall asleep just fine but who wake up in the middle of the night and can't get back to sleep.

Almost half of all Americans don't get enough sleep according to a 2011 National Sleep Foundation poll.

Since so many people have difficulty sleeping, sleeping pills are some of the most widely prescribed medications in America and some of the best-selling over-the-counter medications. Sadly, however, sleeping pills usually do more harm than good. 

Eldora Snowden is one of the millions of people who has difficulty getting a good night's sleep. She sometimes ignores her alarm clock.

"It's almost torture when it goes off because at that point I can feel that my body finally fell asleep," she admitted. "But now I have to get up and I have to struggle in order to get up."

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 weekends.

"Well, I know that I have insomnia and I do not sleep well at all," Eldora said.

Why Sleeping Pills Don't Work

For many, the first step solution tends to be sleeping pills, when in reality, it should be one of the last.

According to sleep experts, this medication is addictive, can have serious side effects, and can cause drowsiness during the day.

Dr. J. Catesby Ware, with the Sentara Sleep Center in Norfolk, Va., said when people experience trouble sleeping, they often respond by doing the wrong thing.

"The person spends time trying to figure out what the best sleeping pill is, which is completely wrong," he said. "What you should spend time doing is trying to figure out, 'Why am I not sleeping?'"

Causes of Sleeplessness

One reason for sleeplessness can be 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.

Nix the spicy or fatty foods. They cause heartburn, which interferes with sleep.

In order to really get 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.

Then once you are in that other room, get a pen and literally write down your problems. This subconsciously transfers them from your mind to the paper, relieving stress so you can go back to bed.

Alternative Treatments

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 the room 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 every day, even on the weekends. And since nicotine is a stimulant, stop smoking.

If these tips don't work, your doctor may send you to a sleep center, where more serious sleep disorders are identified and treated.

The Sleep Centers

Les Ward is one of the patients at the Sentara Sleep Center after he fell asleep once while driving and hit someone. Now, his employer won't let him drive unless these tests can show the accident was an isolated incident.

Dr. Robert Vorona explained how it works.

"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?" he said.

"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?" he asked.

Les stared at the wall for 40 minutes while doctors monitored his movements and bodily functions. 

"The doctor says if I stay awake, he'll give me a letter certifying me to drive," Les explained. "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 laughed.

Many sleep disorders are brought on by underlying physical problems, like obesity or emotional issues like depression.

Doctors say by addressing those root causes and changing some behavior, most people can sleep well and wake refreshed for life. 

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Lorie  Johnson

Lorie Johnson

CBN News Medical Reporter

Lorie Johnson reports on the latest information about health and wellness. Since medicine is constantly changing, she makes sure CBN News viewers are up-to-date on what they need to know in order to live a healthy life.  Follow Lorie on Twitter @LorieCBN and "like" her at Facebook.com/LorieJohnsonCBN.