You could take weeks, months or years to research your sleep. But the information you really need is distilled here. In about five minutes, you’ll get a crash-course on sleep and insomnia.
I’ll also tell you about treatment – what works and what doesn’t.
What Is Insomnia?
Insomnia is defined as either having a hard time getting to sleep, or having a hard time staying asleep. There are two basic kinds; primary and secondary (also called co-morbid).
Secondary insomnia is caused by something external source. Like coffee late in the day, excessive pain at night, or some medication you’re on. It’s best to think hard, and consult with your doctor about secondary insomnia. Once you’ve treated the actual source, the sleeplessness tends to go away. Secondary insomnia is by far the most prevalent type.
When there’s no obvious medical, psychological or environmental source to your sleeplessness, then it’s called primary insomnia. This is the general case where we can’t pinpoint a cause. This is the most frustrating type, as the cure tends to be elusive.
Treatments For Primary Insomnia
We’re going to limit the discussion to primary insomnia, because secondary could have thousands of potential sources. If you suspect secondary, treat all of the obvious potential causes (like cut down the coffee or treat the pain) to see how that changes things. Talk with your doctor about any not-so-obvious roots.
Primary Insomnia Treatments can basically be divided up into five categories, and I’ve listed them in terms of long-term effectiveness (from best to worst):
- Cognitive Behaviour Training: This is the nirvana of insomnia treatment. It can include things like relaxation therapy, yoga, meditation, sleep hygiene, isochronic tracks and many others. It’s primarily aimed at “training” your mind to expect and accept sleep. It involves no drugs, no supplements, no herbs – nothing but your brain. Over the long term, it is the only successful way to treat primary insomnia.
- Pharmaceuticals: This is the one your doctor will probably default to as soon as you complain about insomnia. Don’t go there! Pharmaceuticals – whether they’re benzodiapines (Valium, Ativan, Halcion), non-benzodiazepines (Lunesta, Ambien, Sonata), or off label use drugs (Trazedone), all come with the same warning. There is NO safe and effective long-term insomnia drug, regardless of what your doctor tells you. They all have side effects, and they all stop working after a few weeks.
- Over The Counter Drugs: These come with the same warnings as the pharmaceuticals above. They’ve been deemed safe enough to sell over the counter, but they still suffer from the long term efficacy and side effects as their harder-core cousins. These mostly rely on the drowsy side effects of antihistamines to act, but I’ve found the next-day lethargy is often worse than the insomnia it sets out to treat.
- Man-made Supplements: I include anything which would naturally occur in our bodies (normally through what we eat), but we supplement with a man-made pill. Think of things like melatonin or calcium. While these treatments are considered quite safe, they have a controversial track record in terms of their effectiveness. Some research says they work, some say it doesn’t. The best way to figure out if it does something for you is to try it.
- Herbal Remedies: The last item in our list is the old standby – the remedies your grandmother likely used. This could include things like chamomile, kava root, tart cherry, valerian root tea, and lots of others. Just like with manmade supplements, the jury is out on the efficacy front. And these are not as well researched. Again, they’re deemed quite safe, so my recommendation would be to try them for a week or two and see what happens. One of them might just work for you.
So there you have it. In a few minutes, the things that work, the things that might, and the things to stay away from.
Insomnia is a struggle, and it will take you considerable time to figure out your path to a cure. Good luck as you work through it!