“I tell all my patients, ‘Sleep doesn't come in a bottle,'” says Todd J. Swick, MD, an assistant clinical professor of neurology at the University of Texas School of Medicine, medical director of Houston Sleep and Neurology Associates, and a Fellow of the American Academy of Neurology (FAAN). Some people may benefit from taking sleeping pills in cases of a one-time traumatic event such as the death of a loved one, he says, but, even so, “sleeping pills should not be taken for more than 10 to 14 days in a row.”
Sleeping pills can worsen cognitive impairment in some cases and can put an elderly person at greater risk for falls and confusion, says Michael J. Thorpy, MD, a member of the AAN and director of the Sleep-Wake Disorders Center at the Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, NY. “Some people who have mild cognitive impairment don't do well with sleeping pills,” he says, adding that prolonged use can sometimes make anxiety and disturbed sleep worse.
It's also important to establish good sleep habits and discuss possible underlying causes with your doctor, says Alon Y. Avidan, MD, MPH, FAAN, a professor of neurology and director of the Sleep Disorders Center and Neurology Clinic at the University of California, Los Angeles, and chair of the AAN's Sleep Medicine Section. He recommends cognitive behavioral therapy, which teaches relaxation techniques, meditation, and breathing exercises, and has been shown to help ease chronic insomnia. These techniques can keep pills from becoming a long-term solution.
3 Ways to Sleep Like a Baby
Ease insomnia with these three strategies from Alon Y. Avidan, MD, MPH, FAAN, director of the Sleep Disorders Center and Neurology Clinic at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Todd J. Swick, MD, FAAN, medical director of Houston Sleep and Neurology Associates.
1. STICK TO A SCHEDULE. That means going to bed and waking up at the same time each day, says Dr. Swick. “If you sleep late one day, the following night you're not going to be as sleepy,” and that will throw off your body's internal clock, making it more difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep, he explains.
2. AVOID ALCOHOL AND CAFFEINE. Both substances can act as a stimulant and can exacerbate conditions like restless legs syndrome (characterized by unpleasant sensations in the legs and an uncontrollable urge to move them), says Dr. Swick. Going to bed hungry—or too full—will also make it difficult to fall asleep.
3. CREATE A SLEEP SANCTUARY. Keep your bedroom dark, quiet, and relatively cool, says Dr. Avidan. By eliminating distractions and maintaining a comfortable body temperature, you'll have less trouble falling asleep and staying asleep at night.