Insomnia Help: 4 Steps to a Good Night’s Sleep
Millions of Americans find themselves wide awake in the wee hours of the night. If you’re one of them, you might be suffering from low blood sugar, medication side effects, lack of physical activity, or low levels of an essential nutrient linked to sleep and heart health. Fortunately, there are simple steps you can take to correct these situations.
Four Steps To Sleeping Through the Night
Drawing on my more than 20 years as a practicing physician, here are four tried and true strategies for relieving middle-of-the-night insomnia and getting the rest you need.
- If blood sugar management is a problem for you, consider dietary changes and/or a nutritional supplement to help with managing blood sugar.
- Cut out all caffeine, including non-coffee sources, by 2 p.m.
- Ask your physician to review your medications for possible sleep- interrupting side effects. They are commonly caused by blood pressure medications, ADHD treatments, or other prescriptions.
- Make moderate, daily exercise a habit, since it has been shown to ease all types of insomnia.
If you’re having trouble getting a solid 8 hours of deep, restful sleep because you find yourself wide awake at 3 (or 4 or 5) a.m., rest assured you are not alone. Middle-of-the-night insomnia (MOTN), as the condition is known, is far from rare. Light sleepers, sleep apnea sufferers, those with digestive disorders, and individuals who are stressed, sick, or on pain medication know the frustration of waking up long before the alarm goes off.
To make matters worse, many of these middle-of-the-night insomniacs find it impossible to get back to sleep. Or they might sleep fitfully for a few minutes here and there. But, regardless of why they’re awake, they are all burdened by the problems that accompany insufficient sleep. As my regular readers know, if you’re not getting seven to eight hours of deep, restful sleep each night, you’re left susceptible to a host of health problems, including immune system failures that make you vulnerable to bacterial and viral infections.
You might be wondering why I don’t just prescribe sufferers one of the many drugs on the market to treat insomnia and sleep difficulties. The truth is, those drugs have some serious side effects, including rapid heart beat, dizziness, dry mouth, depression, moodiness, constipation, and restlessness, to name only a few. And another class of drugs – known as benzodiazepines – might help patients get to sleep, but again, the side effects, especially short term memory loss, can become very serious problems, as my patient, Ted, found.
1.) Manage Blood Sugar Through the Night
Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) is a little-known cause of waking in the wee hours. People with diabetes or pre-diabetes are most likely to suffer from nighttime bouts of low blood sugar. But non-diabetics may experience it, too. Although, then it’s known as reactive hypoglycemia, and it generally occurs about four hours after eating.
Symptoms can include night sweats, irritability, nightmares, hunger, talking or crying in one’s sleep, anxiety, shakiness, nausea, inability to concentrate, confusion, and/or a rapid heart rate. If you suspect this could be why you are waking up, you can test your blood sugar levels with a glucose meter. If your blood sugar is less than 70 mg/dl, it’s too low. However, you might also have your physician test your blood sugar levels to confirm.
If hypoglycemia is keeping you awake at night, you will need to make some dietary changes. Consuming food or drinks that contain sugar – including alcohol – are off limits, as are simple carbohydrates found in most snack and processed foods. Instead, aim for a snack that contains about 1/3 protein, 1/3 fat, and 1/3 complex carbohydrates. Here’s an example: one hardboiled egg, 10 cherries, and 10 almonds provide the correct protein/fat/carb breakdown. Or you can experiment with similar combinations until you find one that suits you.
2.) Cut the Caffeine
If you’re a coffee or tea drinker, be sure to switch to decaf by about 2 o’clock in the afternoon to prevent sleep problems during the night. And don’t forget that most decaf beverages still contain a small amount of caffeine. Although it’s only about 10 percent of the amount in caffeinated coffee, if you’re sensitive to caffeine or if you drink several cups of decaf during the day, that amount could add up and affect your sleep.
Meanwhile, get in the habit of reading food-packaging labels on sodas and other beverages, as well as medications. You might be surprised to discover that even non-cola sodas, like Mountain Dew and some orange-flavored drinks, pack a fairly hefty caffeine punch. And be sure to take any over-the-counter medications that are billed as “non-drowsy” early in the day, since those nearly always contain caffeine.
Finally, I suggest my patients avoid energy drinks. At least five recent deaths have been tentatively linked to these beverages, which contain caffeine and other stimulants that can harm individuals with heart arrhythmias and related conditions. And don’t even get me started on the sugar content of all these drinks, whether it’s flavored, designer coffee, sodas, or energy beverages. Sugar can add pounds, which could heighten your risk of developing sleep apnea, another factor in waking during the night.
Do yourself a big favor and make fresh, filtered water your beverage of choice. Add flavor with a small chunk of watermelon, a wedge of lemon or lime, or a couple refreshing slices of cucumber.
3.) Discuss Drugs with Your Doctor
If you’re currently taking prescription medication and find yourself waking in the night, ask your pharmacist or physician if a specific drug could cause it. Not surprisingly, some of the central nervous system stimulants given to people with ADHD can contribute to insomnia. But quite a few other non-stimulants can do the same thing, including beta-blockers that are often taken by individuals with high blood pressure.
Since beta-blockers reduce levels of melatonin in the body, simply taking supplemental melatonin solves that problem. If you would like to try the Slow Release Melatonin supplement I give to patients in my clinic, you can find it here.
4.) Work Out Every Day
If you’re thinking something like, ‘Oh, not exercise again!’ you’re right – I do recommend exercise for nearly everything. That’s because it works! And exercise is especially useful for getting a good night’s sleep.
You don’t have to devote hours to training at a gym or hire an expensive personal trainer to get the benefits of a workout. Just buy a pair of comfortable walking shoes and spend 20 to 30 minutes daily walking briskly. If the weather’s hot, walk in place indoors or walk through the local, air-conditioned mall.
Need more motivation? Remember that, in addition to helping with sleep, exercise eases joint pain, alleviates depression, helps with weight and blood sugar management, and reduces your risk of developing heart disease, certain types of cancer, and other ailments. So please schedule time every day for exercising. It really is that important.
Getting sufficient sleep is essential for a healthy immune system and for repair of damaged cells, so it’s well worth making a few lifestyle adjustments. And unlike sleep medications, which come with a long list of potentially serious side effects, my recommendations won’t make you feel worse the next day. In fact, I think you’ll find that you feel better overall and that you’ll sleep better, too – a winning combination that will definitely improve your health.
Last Updated: August 16, 2018
Originally Published: May 28, 2013