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Few people function well without the 8 or so hours sleep generally considered a normal nights rest. You hear stories of people managing extraordinary lives on only a couple of hours or people who have only slept 40 hours in the last few years, but these people are rare. And for anyone who needs their regular 8 hours or so, insomnia can be a waking nightmare.
What is insomnia? Simply, it's not being able to sleep. When you go to bed, instead of falling asleep, you lay there staring at the ceiling, your head spinning. Insomnia can also take the form of waking up early and not being able to go back to sleep. You may get to bed easily at 10 p.m. but then wake up at 2 a.m. Either forms of insomnia can be destructive to your daily habits.
Insomnia's most common effect is exhaustion. But it can also lead to irritability and lack of proper physical coordination. You may find that you are clumsier during the day, or that you can't get as much done as you usually would.
Insomnia is fairly common in people over the age of 60, perhaps because of the daily changes that come with retirement. More hours of leisure can affect sleep cycles. Many elderly folks get up earlier and go to sleep earlier, for example. Others who are commonly afflicted with insomnia include people with persistent medical issues and those with depression or anxiety.
There are additional external factors that can cause insomnia. The list is long and includes noise, heat (no one gets a proper sleep on a summer night when the air conditioning is broken!), being in a new environment (first night in a new house, for example), certain types of prescription or OTC medication, and jet lag. The good news here is that most of these causes are only temporary and will soon diminish, letting you get back to your normal sleep habits.
And occasionally we only have ourselves to blame if we get insomnia. If we sleep in late or take long afternoon siestas we are likely to disturb our biological rhythms. Drinking coffee, alcohol or smoking cigarettes near to bedtime are also best avoided. But remember it's a vicious circle, since worrying about not being able to sleep will not help.
Finally, there are certain steps you can take to increase your ability to go off to dreamland. Relaxing exercises can help--meditation is particularly effective. Try taking a warm bath, and perhaps filling your bathroom with soothing aromatic candles. Lavender oil is quite calming. Yoga and deep breathing help to quiet the mind. Warm milk may also help. If all else fails and you do wind up laying in bed unable to sleep, simply get up. Do something-- watch TV, read a book, etc. You'll be much likelier to get tired doing these things than by staying in bed.