If the prospect of getting a good night’s sleep seems as elusive to you as all those sheep you’ve been counting, you’re certainly not alone.
In a new Consumer Reports survey, 44 percent of respondents said they spend time tossing, turning or staring at the ceiling when they want to be sleeping. And the National Institutes of Health estimates that as many as 70 million Americans may be dealing with sleep problems.
The reasons for all of this troubled slumber vary from individual to individual, but Consumer Reports found one trait to be prevalent among many problem sleepers: high stress levels. Another key finding from the survey: Millions of people are turning to prescription or over-the-counter drugs to help them sleep at night.
The authorsof the report say too many people are relying on medications as a first resort even though other sleep remedies — most notably sound machines — could be just as effective for them. The survey revealed that even though sleep medications are typically recommended for no more than two weeks, 38 percent of respondents who’d taken a prescription drug in the past month said they’d been on it for more than two years.
“Unfortunately we fail as a society to even recognize the most basic fundamentals of sleep, and we turn to the pills for the quick fix,” Dr. Carol Ash, a sleep and pulmonary specialist, told TODAY co-anchor Meredith Vieira on Tuesday. “But sleep is a very complex process and (insomnia is) not just one diagnosis. We need to get to the root cause.”
The role of sleep medicines
Ash, medical director of Sleep for Life Inc. in New Jersey, said root causes of insomnia can include sleep-apnea problems, distracting noises and “racing thoughts,” among others. She recommended that people suffering with insomnia try alternative treatments before taking medications.
“What people don’t realize is these medications can pose a host of side effects including daytime drowsiness — even bizarre behavior like sleepwalking, sleep-eating and sleep-driving,” said Tod Marks, senior editor at Consumer Reports.
In response to Consumer Reports’ findings, the makers of popular prescription sleep aids told TODAY that their products can help treat insomnia safely and effectively when taken as recommended. The drug makers also noted that they work to educate patients and doctors about the importance of treating insomnia’s root causes.
“We do not encourage the inappropriate use of sleep medicines,” Sepracor Inc., the maker of the medication Lunesta, said in a statement. “For patients with insomnia, the best treatment approach may in fact be a safe and effective prescription medication combined with good sleep habits. It is the physician who is best equipped to make that determination.”
To read full statements from the makers of Lunesta, Ambien and Ambien CR, click here.
Why we’re lying awake at night
In addition to high stress levels, another factor leading to insomnia among many survey respondents was physical pain from arthritis and other health problems, including back pain and neck pain. Respiratory conditions such as asthma or a cold and mood disorders such as depression also were cited.
When Consumer Reports asked survey participants about their experiences in the past month, 44 percent said they had problems falling asleep, staying asleep or waking up too early on at least eight nights — categorizing them as “problem sleepers.” The findings from the survey of 1,466 adults are featured in the magazine’s September issue.
On Tuesday, TODAY consumer correspondent Janice Lieberman highlighted various sound machines ranging in price from $20 to $129 that could be just as effective as sleep medications for many people. Consumer Reports said 70 percent of survey respondents who tried sound machines found them to be helpful most nights, compared with 75 percent who tried prescription drugs and 57 percent who tried over-the-counter drugs.
Among people coping with the most extreme cases of insomnia, 50 percent said sound machines helped them most nights.
Tips to help you sleep
Here are some additional pointers for getting a good night’s sleep.
- Relax, relax, relax. By exercising during the day — but not too close to bedtime — you’ll likely have an easier time relaxing at night. Relaxation tapes and techniques also may help. If you have health insurance, check to see whether your plan would cover a visit to a cognitive behavioral therapist who could teach you relaxation techniques and other methods for falling asleep.
- Who’s that sleeping in your bed? If you allow your children or pets to sleep in bed with you, this could be contributing to your sleep problems in a big way. Decide whether it’s time to reassess the situation.
- Monitor your habits. Consumer Reports says these habits could affect your ability to sleep at night: long or late-day naps; watching TV in bed; drinking alcohol or caffeinated beverages close to bedtime; eating large meals at night; and varying your bedtime and wake-up times throughout the week.
- Think about your mattress. Is it more than eight years old? If so, it might be time to replace it.
- Talk to your doctor. If these alternatives don’t work for you and you continue to suffer from insomnia, visit your doctor. You may be a candidate for a prescription sleep aid on a short-term basis.
“We just have to commit to and embrace healthy sleep habits,” Ash said Tuesday. “And if you’re doing these things, you may really see a big difference in your sleep and not need these sleeping pills.”