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What’s interfering with your sleep? Take inventory

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — No, it’s not just your aging body keeping you awake at night.

In fact, it could be the prescribed medications you’re taking.

Or, it could be that you watch television or play one more round of solitaire on the tablet right before bed.

So says Dr. Frank Ralls, medical director for Adult Sleep Medicine Services at the University of New Mexico and the program director for the UNM Sleep Medicine fellowship. (He was an elementary school teacher for 10 years before he returned to school to become a doctor.)

Some medications, he says, have the side effect of “activating” the brain.

“There can be genetic responses to some medication,” he adds. “The key is to say, ‘Since I’ve started taking the drug, have I had a negative behavior or symptom?'”

An estimated 7 percent to 29 percent of patients taking antidepressants are affected with the side effect of restless legs, which in turn keeps them up at night. Another possible insomnia-causing medication is statins, taken for cholesterol. These can cause leg cramps and pain.

Ralls recommends asking your doctor if it’s OK to take the medication in the morning, or to take a lower dose.

Also, ask yourself if you’ve noticed that you’re unable to sleep since you started the new medication.

But if your medication isn’t the culprit, think about your gadgets.

“One thing with insomnia that people fail to miss all the time … is electronics,” Ralls says.

The blue light that the screens emit tell the brain that it’s daytime, he explains.

The suprachiasmatic nucleus part of the brain doesn’t secrete melatonin when you’re in front of a computer screen or television, tablet or phone, he says. When the devices are turned off, “it’s like a hand coming off so the brain can secrete melatonin,” Ralls says.

As a general rule, people fall asleep as the level of melatonin secreted rises. For example, if you want to be asleep at 9 p.m., then turn off the electronics at 8.

And, as you get older, the brain produces much smaller levels of melatonin. Melatonin, along with a fall in body temperature, help many people fall asleep faster.

Dr. Reba Eagles of Original Medicine Acupuncture & Wellness says many of her patients come to her for help in easing insomnia, pain and fatigue.

“The beauty of Western medicine is it can keep us alive in really amazing ways. … But then we’re made to rely on pharmaceuticals with side effects,” Eagles says.

The body, she says in an email, is “a natural healing mechanism.” She explains that Chinese medicine, particularly acupuncture, treats many conditions and works on improving “blood flow so the area of the body with compromised function raises and natural healing occurs.”

She offers the following tip for getting a better night’s rest: Take vitamin B1 at 100 mg just before going to bed.

EAGLES: Body is “a natural healing mechanism”

EAGLES: Body is “a natural healing mechanism”

“Also, magnesium before bed is very relaxing and calming,” Eagles says. “It can help to reduce muscle pain, especially that caused by statins and, in combination with the B1 vitamin, it helps calm the mind from the over-thinking caused by some of the asthma and ADHD meds, as well as prednisone or other corticosteroids used for different types of pain.”

If you must have your electronic device on before bed, she suggests adding the f.lux app to your devices so the light changes from the stimulating blue to a relaxing yellow after the sun goes down. Find it at

Ralls says some of his patients think they have insomnia but that’s not the case. Sometimes seniors will get five hours of sleep a night, and take a couple of naps during the day totaling the required amount of sleep within a 24-hour period.

It’s not insomnia if you feel rested when you wake up, whether it’s after five hours or eight, he says. Insomnia is when someone, for example, is used to getting five hours a night and feels fine but if he finds that he can’t fall asleep for his usual stretch, and can’t function during the day, that’s insomnia. Insomnia interrupts daytime functioning, he says.

Ralls recommends:

  • Have a routine; go to sleep and wake up at the same times each night and day.
  • Keep the coffee-drinking to the earlier part of the day.
  • Get your exercise routine finished in the morning or afternoon.
  • Consider taking a melatonin supplement. One brand he recommends is called Pure Encapsulations, and you can ask the pharmacist for it.
  • And, here’s one more thing he learned from a mentor: “Forgive everyone before you go to bed and you’ll sleep better.”