Counting sheep too often?

January 16, 2008

Most women have bouts of insomnia-the failure to fall asleep or stay asleep or both-at some point in their lives. I recall the experience of one woman I knew: Several weeks before her wedding, she began a nightly ritual of lying awake for hours, followed by hours of tossing and turning until at last she would become exhausted and fall asleep. This pattern left her little time for restful sleep.

Fortunately, my friend was able to return to her normal sleeping pattern after the big day. This type of anxiety-induced sleeplessness is a classic and straightforward case of short-term insomnia, and so an ideal candidate for those well advertised sleeping pills.
Many women, however, have prolonged difficulties achieving good sleep. As mothers, students, caretakers, and professionals, many of us lead hectic lives, filled with both obvious and subtler stressors that are on our minds as we attempt to settle into sleep. The sheer numbers of over-the-counter and prescription sleep aids give you an idea of how widespread insomnia is today.
But the problem with these sleep aids is that even though they induce drowsiness, they do not promote real sleep - deep, lasting, and refreshing. And some of these agents, if taken over the course of months may lead to dependency or stop working altogether. Don't be surprised if your physician is not inclined to prescribe them.
Fortunately, there are many measures besides popping pills that you can use to improve your chances of getting a good night's sleep. Here are a few:
----- Acknowledge your stressors. Consider transferring that list of items swirling around in your head at night onto a sheet of paper. This will help you feel as if you've gotten started with your tasks and let you get some rest.
---- Exercise regularly. It may seem counterintuitive, but upping your level of activity during the evening, when you think you're wiped out, will help you to gain a second wind and probably to sleep better when you do retire.
----- Avoid caffeine after mid-day. Be wary, too, of sodas and teas, which often contain caffeine as well.
----- Go to bed when you're tired. Don't spend time staring at the ceiling and worrying about how you simply must get some sleep. Get up, do something relaxing in another room, and return to bed when you're ready.
---- Learn relaxation techniques. Consciously attend to your breathing; imagine being in your favorite place; relax your muscles, scanning your body from head to toe - Pilates and yoga classes often teach these skills.
---- Maintain a routine. Changing your sleep schedule dramatically on Friday and Saturday nights can lead to a shift in your circadian rhythm that carries into the following week.
---- Consider melatonin. This hormone is a natural sleep aid. It appears to work particularly well for those who have trouble staying asleep, even though they may easily fall asleep. A dose of 0.3 mg nightly is recommended.
Talk with your doctor about your sleep troubles if they persist. Pain, snoring, frequent nighttime urination, or symptoms of anxiety or depression should be further assessed and may respond to other treatments.