Insomnia Got the Best of You?

What the experts advise

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Surfing the net, eating Cheetos and updating statuses on Facebook are all things Susan Kelbaugh does during the middle of the night, when most people are soundly sleeping.


She’s an insomniac.

Insomnia isn’t as fun as that sounds, though -- cut to the chase of things, and it’s a nightmarish condition that leaves Kelbaugh with little to no sleep.  

“When I’m trying to fall asleep, I find myself tossing and turning and feeling anxious.  My legs feel very restless,” she said.

In particular, know that feeling the morning after a restless night’s sleep?  For those with insomnia, that’s how every morning feels:  lethargy, lack of energy, irritability, depression, inability to concentrate -- really, the list goes on -- are all effects of the tossing-and-turning condition.

Insomnia ranges in severity, and it can be chronic or acute.  Kelbaugh, who suffers from chronic (or long-term) insomnia, has problems falling asleep every day of the week.  She tries to fall asleep around 11 p.m. every night but finds herself counting sheep up until the wee hours of the morning. 

“I fall asleep for about an hour and a half to two hours, and then I wake up, and then I toss and turn, and then I get out of bed, and then I watch TV, and then I go and get on websites," she said.  "And then, around 4 a.m., my body begins to settle down, and I go in and lie down and fall asleep."

According to the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), the main type of insomnia is comorbid insomnia, which means that the condition stems from another issue at hand, like medication, depression, menopause, hyperthyroidism or arthritis.  Substances like caffeine, nicotine and tobacco can additionally cause disruptions in sleep patterns.

On the other hand, primary insomnia, another form of the condition, is not caused by other medical issues.  Instead, long-lasting stress and emotional trauma can be to blame, triggering the disorder.

Signs of insomnia include lying awake for long periods of time, sleeping for short intervals and waking up too early.  The condition isn’t just about feeling cranky, either -- lack of z's can be deadly, as driving while drowsy contributes to over 100,000 automobile crashes per year.

Helene A. Emsellem, M.D., director of The Center for Sleep & Wake Disorders in Chevy Chase and author of Snooze...or Lose! Ten “No-War” Ways to Improve Your Teen's Sleep Habits, explains that a restless night’s sleep is mood affecting -- which poses the potential to ruin the day’s outlook.  On top of that, lack of sleep can also contribute to elevated blood pressure levels, uncontrollable blood sugar levels and weight gain.  

“There are a surprising number of long term health consequences of insufficient sleep," Dr. Emsellem said.  "People who don’t get enough sleep -- under six and a half hours -- have a shorter life expectancy.  Insufficient sleep has major impact on bodily functions.  It’s surprisingly difficult to maintain body weight when you’re not getting enough sleep.”

If you’re uncertain as to whether or not you’re dealing with a string of lousy nights’ sleep by coincidence or if you are suffering from insomnia, the NHLBI recommends asking yourself the following questions:

  • Do you have trouble sleeping?  Have you had the problem for a while?
  • Does it take you a while to fall asleep?
  • Do you wake up often at night?
  • Do you snore loudly, or wake up gasping and feeling out of breath?
  • Do you wake up feeling fatigued?
  • Do you doze off during tasks like driving?

If you answer “yes” to any of these questions, consider keeping a sleep diary, like the one used by The Center for Sleep & Wake Disorders (, to track the patterns and effects of your sleeping habits.  

To facilitate sleep, Dr. Emsellem recommends establishing a ritualized bedtime consistent throughout the weekdays and weekends, as well. 

“It’s hard for the brain to find out when it should go to sleep when there’s not a pattern to follow,” she said.  

In addition, adopting calming bedtime routines like taking a hot bath, reading or listening to music may help to ritualize the sleep process.  A type of therapy, called cognitive behavioral therapy, can help to regulate sleeping patterns.

For those like Kelbaugh, who have trouble staying asleep, experts like Dr. Emsellem advise that it’s best to stay in bed to increase the chances of falling back asleep.  (Kelbaugh: that means put down the Cheetos bag.)

Finally, if all tried and true methods fail, then consider making an appointment with your health care physician, who may eventually instruct that you participate in a sleep study.

Though the concept of waking up on the wrong side of the bed may seem like an everyday occurrence -- know that it’s not normal and that a restful night’s sleep is achievable.  Discovering the cause of your sleep irregularities can potentially be lifesaving and maybe, just maybe, you’ll be counting your sheep into blissfully happy la-la land sooner than you know.

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