Learn about insomnia, its cause, and its treatments.

Rob Lamberts, MD
5-minute read
Episode #34

How to Treat Insomnia

How you treat insomnia depends on its severity, cause, and consequences. The first step is to remove anything that interferes with sleep. Don’t drink coffee or Red Bull after lunch, and don’t use alcohol to help you sleep. If you are on any regular medications, ask your doctor or pharmacist if these could be hurting your sleep. Finally, if you have medical or psychiatric problems causing trouble, get those treated.

Quick and Dirty Tips for Insomnia

This brings me to the last group of insomniacs: those with none of these problems, who simply can’t fall asleep. Some have it for a short period, whereas others have a lifelong battle with insomnia. It is to those people I will address my quick and dirty tips. After all else has been treated or ruled out, you should do the following:

Tip 1: Have Good Sleep Habits

These habits include:

  • Having a regular bedtime

  • Exercising at least 20 minutes per day

  • Not going to sleep hungry

  • Avoiding caffeine, tobacco, and alcohol – especially later in the day

  • Dealing with your stressors

Tip 2: Control Night Time Stimuli

Minimize what you can - Keep your bedroom as quiet and dark as possible.

Turn off the TV - Some people fall asleep to the television, but studies clearly show TV interferes with sleep.

Wind down - Give yourself time to wind down if you have had significant mental or emotional stimulation. The time in my life I had the hardest time sleeping was during medical school, when I would intensely study and then go to bed. Finding an activity to wind down helped a lot.

Don’t force things – If you can’t get to sleep after 20-30 minutes and are starting to think about it, get up and find a relaxing activity like reading or listening to soft music. Don’t do this in bed if you can help it; bed should be a place for sleep.

Tip 3: Have a Routine

Have as regular of a routine before going to bed as possible. The more of a routine you have, the less you have to think. The less you have to think, the easier sleep will come. If reading helps, then read, but keep it to light reading that won’t get your mind working again.

Tip 4: Medicate when Appropriate

For some people, using medication on a long-term basis is necessary. Most people, however, will only need medication for the short term while they build a new sleep routine. This is the best way to use medication.
What Medications Should You Use for Insomnia?

Common medications for sleep include:

Melatonin – This is a very mild over-the-counter medication that replaces a hormone in your body that has a role in sleep. It’s not a real strong medication, but it does help, and there is no risk of dependency.

Antihistamines – The most common over-the-counter sleep medication is diphenhydramine, which is the active ingredient in Benadryl. This is very safe and can be used in the long-term, but it can give a hangover the next morning, and men with prostate problems should avoid it.

Prescription medications – The class of medicines used most in the past was the benzodiazepines, which includes medicines like Valium and Xanax. But regular use of these medications caused dependency, so stopping them made sleep more difficult. The newer sleep medications, like Ambien and Lunesta, have fewer problems with dependency and so can be used safely long-term. But there are downsides, as some have reported sleepwalking and doing other strange things while taking them. That is rare, but it underlines the fact that it’s always better to fix a problem without a medication if possible, and your doctor should monitor your use of medication closely.

That’s it for insomnia. I hope I haven’t put you all to sleep…or maybe not.

If you have questions you want answered, send them to housecalldoctor@quickanddirtytips.com. You can find me on Twitter as @housecalldoc and on Facebook under “House Call Doctor.”

Let me remind you that this podcast is for informational purposes only. My goal is to add to your medical knowledge and translate some of the weird medical stuff you hear, so when you do go to your doctor, your visits will be more fruitful. I don’t intend to replace your doctor; he or she is the one you should always consult about your own medical condition.

Catch you next time!  Stay Healthy!

Insomnia image courtesy of Shutterstock


Please note that all content here is strictly for informational purposes only. This content does not substitute any medical advice, and does not replace any medical judgment or reasoning by your own personal health provider. Please always seek a licensed physician in your area regarding all health related questions and issues.