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Got Insomnia?
7 Common Causes of What Keeps You Awake at Night


Everyone suffers from insomnia at some time: my friend Elizabeth used to revel in it, experiencing extended sleeplessness for weeks at a time. When she was a pre-teen, she thought insomnia and the resulting dark under eye circles was a normal part of life because for her, it was. Her family would go to bed around 10:30, at which time she would turn on the light (or sneak into the living-room) and read until 3 or 4 AM. Getting up in the morning was hard, because Elizabeth was only getting about four hours of sleep at a time.

In her early twenties, she made insomnia work for her by studying late at night. She took a tremendous load of courses, worked a couple of part-time jobs, dated heavily and still had hours and hours left over. About once a semester, usually at finals week, she'd break down entirely and get whatever flu was going around: it was her body's main strategy for getting some rest.

As Elizabeth got older and settled down, insomnia settled down too. Maybe it was having someone else to cuddle with, or maybe the anxieties of her youth diminished. Anyway, she has maybe three nights a month when she can't sleep, and gets up to read in the living-room.

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Elizabeth was pretty lucky, though. She found ways to cope with her body's insistence on staying awake. But millions of people experience insomnia, and when you have a demanding job or a fussy baby, a night of not being able to sleep can feel tortuous. And once you're in your thirties, insomnia has a strongly negative affect on your looks (hence the term, "beauty sleep"). Under eye circles, blotchy skin and bleary eyes are only three of the drawbacks of insomnia.

Insomnia is caused by so many factors that you can have one reason or six, each one potent enough to keep a person awake. When I can't sleep, I consider the following possible causes:

Common causes of insomnia: Avoid these to get a better night's sleep

1. Caffeine. Some people get jittery after a single cup of coffee and others can drink gallons with no discernable effect. In some situations, drinking moderate amounts of caffeine (which includes tea and cola, by the way) seems to have no effect until you've been at it for several days in a row. If I can't sleep and don't have a pressing reason for anxiety, I think back over the past several days and unusually realize I've been hitting the iced tea by the gallon. Leaving it alone for a few days usually puts things right again.

2. Stress. If you're worried or tense, insomnia comes along as part of the package. You can try a couple of techniques to relieve your tension enough to get to sleep.

    a. Promise yourself you'll deal with whatever it is the very first thing in the morning. If you're like me, putting off paying a bill or making an unpleasant phone call can worry at me until I can't sleep. Promising to solve the problem helps you to temporarily shelve it (but you'd better keep that promise, or you'll never trust yourself again!)

    b. Setting aside a daily time for worry can help you contain it. Take ten minutes out of each day and worry like crazy. Make lists of the things you're agonizing over, then rate each item from 1-10 on a "likelihood of happening" scale. When you find yourself worrying at other times of the day or night, remind yourself that you'll worry tomorrow, at 3PM and set it aside.

    c. Imagine yourself taking a bundle of worries and locking them inside a cabinet. Take your time and be thorough. They may try to wiggle away or sneak out, but gather them all together. You may decide to put rubber bands around them or have them sedated. You might want to tie them together and roll them up like a fire hose. Be as creative as you can when picturing your worries and the way you're going to handle them. Will you stow them in an iron-bound trunk? A cedar chest? A garage or barn? Visualize the type of lock you'll use and see yourself locking the door or cabinet. Sometimes, just elaborating on this exercise is enough to put yourself to sleep.

    d. If nothing you try seems to work, consider visiting a therapist to help you learn more about reducing your anxiety. Medications have proven very effective.

4. Hormones. Insomnia can result from hormonal fluctuations. Keeping an insomnia diary can help you figure out if sleeplessness is linked to your menstrual cycle. Sleeplessness is also one of the symptoms of menopause. If you're generally content with the way your hormones are performing, you may choose to induce sleep by having an extra glass of wine at night, or a hot bath. If hormones are causing you real problems, try herbal remedies or go have a chat with your ob-gyn about the latest in the medical community's understanding about women's sexual health.

5. Sugar. Eating late snacks or desserts can cause insomnia as your blood sugar races around trying to find something to do. Replace sweets with sugar-free snacks and see if it helps. Eating a meal late at night can also cause insomnia, either because of the rise in blood sugar or because trying to sleep before your meal is fully assimilated can give you indigestion.

6. Exercise. Studies have shown that when people exercise later in the evening, they also tend to have a harder time getting to sleep.

7. Too much alcohol. If you drink a lot, sleeplessness occurs when the body rebounds from the depressant effect of alcohol on the central nervous system. This happens to chronic alcoholics, but also to people who don't usually drink much but make an exception at a bachelor party and have more than a couple. Typically, alcohol makes us sleepy, but as the alcohol is metabolized by the body, the change wakes us up. Too much sugar can work the same way in reverse, first making us high and lively, then sending the blood sugar into a crashing low. Sugar is often a major cause of sleeplessness in children. They get hopped up on popsicles and won't go down for a nap. When a grown-up tries to get them to nap anyway, the blood sugar crash comes along, and the result is a screeching, wailing, but exhausted child. Fun stuff, huh!

Believe it or Not, Tea Works

We've all seen the commercials for pain relievers and cold medicines with "sleep aids", which often consist of either decongestants or alcohol. There are also herbal remedies, usually containing chamomile, which is a sleep aid know world-wide since medieval times. Valerian root ( smells stinky, even ground and in capsule form, but it's also effective and gentle. Of course, there are always pharmaceutical remedies for sleeplessness, but they should be last resorts, because they tend to be habit-forming and have other side effects.

An Occasional Late Night Might Spark Creativity

If you don't have to go to work the next morning, insomnia can be pretty manageable. You might find that with punchiness comes creativity, so I wouldn't rule out getting out of bed to sketch, bake or plan next year's garden. Also, not having the stress of counting the hours until you have to get to work can often calm you down to the point of relaxation. If you're expected at work the next day, you could call in sick the night before. Then, if you can't get to sleep, you can stay home and rest the next day, and if you can get to sleep, you can show up the next day.



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