Recently a friend of mine came to me and said “Tell me about insomnia. How do I know if its a problem?” Well, that’s pretty easy. If you are taking the step to ask a friend or investigate “insomnia” in any way, its probably already a problem.

Insomnia touches all of our lives at one point or another. The harder thing is when it sticks and becomes a chronic problem. By chronic I don’t mean that you lie awake every single night staring at the ceiling. That can happen, but your insomnia experience may be different. Chronic can mean that insomnia stays with you over a long time or that it is persistent and comes back to visit.

There’s lots medical professionals don’t know about insomnia. To me this is proven out by the ways in which prescription sleep medicine affect different people. If insomnia had one cause and only one or two symptoms, it would be cured. But the simple fact isn’t so simple: insomnia can be caused by many different things, ranging from medications to hormonal shifts to stress. The symptoms of insomnia can also vary wildly. Some people with insomnia can’t fall asleep and of those, some will lie wide eyed awake staring at the ceiling while others will fall into that half-sleep/half-awake state and never fall over the precipice to sleep. Some people with insomnia wake up at close to the same time every night for no good reason. Well, the “no good reason” ranges from indigestion to hormone shifts. Many women experiencing peri-menopausal symptoms wake up at almost the same time every night and medical science doesn’t know why.

Sometimes insomnia is caused by something simple. You can have a difficult time falling asleep or you may be awakening each night for reasons that are easily removed from your life. If you’ve been experiencing either of these symptoms the first thing to do is start a diary. Note the following:

A. When, how and for how long is your sleep disturbed?
B. What did you consume in the 6 hours prior to bedtime?
C. Caffeine and sugar – last consumption and how much?
D. What medications – both over the counter (OTC) and prescription do you take in the 8-12 hours before bedtime? With medications we expand the time frame as the effects of medication on the body can be longer lasting and can change over the hours.
E. Don’t forget supplements. Keep track of the supplements you take during the day and pay attention to any effects or any effects when mixed with medications and/or other supplements.

Start small. If and when you see a pattern, take action, eliminate any offenders from your diet/health regime and note any positive changes. Then move your inquiry a circle outwards – start paying attention to what specific foods give you indigestion and/or what spices may keep you awake. I don’t know if there is any specific research to prove this out, but I’ve had several people tell me that, aside from caffeine and/or sugar, ginger has a negative effect on sleep. That’s especially something to keep an eye on because of the number of us that drink ginger tea to settle a rumbly belly.

Start being even more specific. Imagine how wonderful it would be if your trouble falling asleep is alleviated by avoiding caffeine in the afternoon? Oh my!

On the other side are those of us who have limited to moderate success keeping track of what goes into our bodies before sleep. Keep in mind that not everyone requires 8 hours of sleep a night to be productive and alert. Many people work well on less, so if you routinely go to bed at 11 and awaken at 6 feeling rested and alert, that may not be insomnia – that may just be all the sleep you need.

If you are a woman experiencing peri-menopausal symptoms it is very likely you will experience disturbed sleep at some point during that journey. The main treatment for menopausal insomnia is HRT (Hormone Replacement Therapy) or perhaps a low-dose birth control pill. If you choose to go that route, research, research, and do more research. Be cautious as to what websites you are getting information from so that the glowing reviews you are reading on HRT aren’t on a website owned by a pharmaceutical company; conversely, if you are reading that supplements work great, make sure a supplement company is not behind that research. Remember that just as you are unique, every person you speak to is unique so understand that your journey may not be the same as theirs.

I’ve had success with acupuncture and supplements. Its expensive but in the hands of the right acupuncturist your insomnia can be treated easily. Since benefits of acupuncture build with each treatment, the more you go the better you feel. If you are a woman who experiences insomnia right before or during your cycle – another time when insomnia is prevalent but treatments vary wildly from person to person – you can have a monthly session with your acupuncturist shortly before you expect your symptoms to start (keep a diary on this as well so you know when your cycles are and when your symptoms start) can head the insomnia off at the pass.

There are so many symptoms of insomnia and so many treatments. The one treatment that is most likely to work but is most difficult to attain is meditation. I credit my meditation practice with eliminating my problem falling asleep. I can often use meditation to relax and fall back to sleep when I awaken in the night. If I am truly frustrated, anxious or nervous, I’m not a good enough meditator to get through the layers of gunk to find my peace. Elevated pain also makes it difficult for me to focus. Like anyone, the less focused I am the harder meditation.

One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is not to fight insomnia. If its a long-term part of your life, accept it. Accept that there may be nights when you just have to get up, make a cup of (decaf) tea and read for a bit. Accept that you may need to depend upon your meditation practice as a way to fall asleep or stay asleep, and adjust accordingly. Visit as many “cures” as you can, knowing that what works for your best friend, partner or spouse may not work for you. Above all, come to peace with your insomnia and try to find the positives. At one point in my life I woke up frequently and could not get back to sleep. So I would do a gentle practice, with asanas I found most soothing, then I would meditate and move into yoga nidra. At the time I was a single mom stressed to the max (wonder where my insomnia came from!) so waking up and doing yoga was found time for me, a blessing I apparently needed. One thing I’ve found to be true for me: the less I fight insomnia, the more I either (a) get back to sleep, or at least rest and (b) don’t feel as run down the next day. Acceptance, with peace and grace, is usually hard to find. Once you can bring it into your life, you’ll find more situations doable. Let that idea drive your path if you are dealing with insomnia.