Tossin' and Turnin'

By Frank Spinelli, M D

Originally published on Advocate.com March 29 2011 3:00 AM ET

I often have trouble sleeping. This seems odd to me, because when I was a medical resident and had to stay up for 36 hours on call, I was always so tired that I could literally fall asleep anywhere. I could even sleep standing up. Years later I lost this ability to fall asleep easily. Nowadays I often find myself tossing and turning in bed, wondering why I can’t shut my brain down and sleep.

Everyone has an occasional sleepless night. This is common, and for most people it’s not an issue. But lack of restful sleep affects your ability to carry out your daily responsibilities. The next day you’re likely to have trouble concentrating. You feel drowsy and cranky.

The reason why you’re unable to sleep is typically not related to an underlying medical condition, although some cases of thyroid disease and high blood pressure can lead to difficulty sleeping. Some psychiatric conditions, like depression or anxiety, often lead to erratic sleep cycles. Most times, however, when we find ourselves unable to sleep, it is not due to any health problem; for many, it depends on our sleep habits. For example, erratic sleep schedules, such as waking up and going to bed at a different time every night, can affect your internal sleep clock, or circadian rhythm. A good way to correct this is to try to go to sleep and wake up around the same time every day.

Also, some people take their work to bed. When you turn your bedroom into a home office and your bed into a desk, it’s difficult to put down your work and then try to fall asleep. That’s because you’ve invaded your sleep haven with stressful reminders of work. The same thing applies when you turn your bedroom into an entertainment center by watching movies in bed. (And yes, I am guilty of this too.)

Try to avoid working in bed or watching movies. Instead, read a book or a magazine until you find yourself becoming drowsy. If you’re still tossing and turning in bed, I recommend you leave your bedroom and go into another room to read. If you turn your bed into the place where you can’t fall asleep, you will associate this inability to fall asleep with getting into bed. You need to break this cycle. Go sit on the couch and read until you find yourself feeling sleepy.

Of course, if none of these tips work, consult your health care provider.