A Better Night’s Sleep: Medications, their risks and alternatives to help you sleep

CHESAPEAKE, Va. - Do you have trouble falling asleep? You're not alone.

Experts say between 20 to 30 percent of Americans suffer from some sort of insomnia, meaning they have trouble falling and staying asleep.

Dr. Vandana Dhawan says in her 13 years at Sleep Specialists of Tidewater in Chesapeake she's seen the number of patients with sleep troubles go up and up.

She says, for many, stress and anxiety play a big role.

"We have a lot of stress in our society. Stress at work, stress at home," Dr. Dhawan told News 3. "Women are more prone to insomnia than men."

And many of her patients are quick to turn to Ambien, Lunesta and other sleep medications. Dr. Dhawan says around 10 million Americans use sleeping pills regularly.

It's not too much of an issue when pills are used short-term or here-and-there, but when someone uses them regularly for longer than a couple months, Dr. Dhawan says it's concerning, especially when medications do their job too well and the effects last longer than intended.

"If the medication is still in your system, you could be drowsy and it increases your chances of having a motor vehicle accident," she said. "A lot of other cases reported sleepwalking with medications like Ambien. Patients are not aware of it at all. They drove in the middle of the night and they didn't know it at all. These medications can cause some serious side-effects."

Dr. Dhawan says melatonin is more natural than sleep drugs and a better choice for people looking to set a certain sleep schedule, but again, it shouldn't be used on a consistent basis for too long.

Instead of using medication regularly, try some alternatives, she says.

At the basic level, she suggests maintaining a fixed bedtime and wake-up time and daily exercise. Also, avoid caffeine after 2 p.m., she says, and try not to nap. If you have to nap, don't let it last longer than 20 minutes.

For some, a bed can be associated with anxiety or worry that they won't fall asleep. There are techniques to help with that, Dr. Dhawan says.

"If [20 minutes goes by] and you`re not able to fall asleep, then get out of your bed and go to another room. Do something that`s more relaxing; listen to music, or read a book. Nothing like watching TV in the middle of the night or cleaning the floors because that would keep you more awake. Then try to go to bed only when you feel like you are sleepy," she suggests.

If you still can't fall asleep after roughly 20 minutes, Dr. Dhawan says to repeat those steps until you're able to fall asleep. Even though it might be frustrating at first and it might take a while, the purpose is to associate the bed with sleeping and sleeping only.

Another technique that could help with insomnia is called "sleep restriction". Figure out the time you normally fall asleep, she says, and only go to bed at that time while getting up at the same time each day.

For example, if you go to bed at 10 p.m. and wake up at 6 a.m. but normally fall asleep at midnight, go to bed at midnight instead and still wake up at 6 a.m. even if it means not getting the recommended 7-8 hours of sleep.

"Once [patients] are able to achieve that consolidated sleep, then you try to extend their bedtime by 15 to 20 minutes every week or so, until we reach the desirable bedtime they want. This is a very effective therapy. It kind of takes a little while, a few weeks to get into," said Dr. Dhawan.

As always, limiting screen time in the hour leading up to bedtime and choosing to read a book or meditate can also help.

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