Sleep problems

Sleep is essential to physical and emotional health and plays a vital role in helping the body recover from illness and injury. Sleep problems, such as insomnia, sleepwalking, nightmares and snoring make daily life more stressful and less productive.

Effects of poor sleep

  • Falling asleep during the day
  • Constantly feeling tired
  • Poor concentration
  • Learning and memory problems
  • Difficulty in reasoning and decision-making
  • Irritable and irrational behaviour
  • Frustration
  • Problems in self-expression
  • Increased risk of accidents and injury

Recognition and treatment of sleep problems are important because of the threat to emotional and physical health. Psychiatrists believe that sleep disorders can sometimes indicate the development of psychiatric problems.

How much sleep do I need?
Although sleep requirements vary from person to person, generally, most healthy adults need an average of six to nine hours of sleep a night. However, it is usual for some people to have less sleep without being badly affected. The main emphasis from research, however, is that it is not the quantity of sleep that matters, but rather how well you feel physically and mentally as a result of your sleep pattern.

Causes of sleep problems
Two common causes of sleep disturbances are anxiety and depression. Anxiety occupies the mind so that sleep is delayed, disturbed or shortened. Individuals suffering depression often wake early and cannot return to sleep or instead find themselves sleeping during the day. With either of these, the complaint may manifest itself as a sleep problem, but the underlying condition needs to be treated and individuals are encouraged to discuss issues with their GP.

Common causes of sleep disturbance are:

  • Depression, anxiety, worry, stress, anger.
  • Nose, throat or lung conditions, asthma, sleep apnea, narcolepsy, pain, medication, indigestion, headaches, backache, arthritis, diabetes, asthma, ulcers.
  • Temperature, tea, coffee, alcohol and nicotine, heavy meal before sleep, mental or physical activity before sleep, daytime naps, irregular sleep schedule, working at night, little daytime exercise.
  • Noise, pollution, too much light, lack of privacy, overcrowding.

Sleep problems are treatable
It can be distressing when others don’t understand the difficulties you are having with sleep and how it can affect your life. The good news is that you can overcome your sleep problems. The first thing to do is consult your GP. They may test for an abnormally active thyroid (which can cause both insomnia and too much sleep). Medication may also be prescribed by the GP for temporary sleep problems or short-term use in breaking the sleeping pattern.

Things you can do to help you sleep

Sleep only when sleepy
Avoid lying in bed worrying about not sleeping. If you don't fall asleep within 30 minutes, get up, leave the bedroom and do something relaxed until you feel sleepy again. Don’t expose yourself to bright light or too much noise while you get up (this wakes up the brain). Sit quietly, read a book, listen to mellow music, take a bath or find another way to relax before you try to sleep again.

Don't take daytime naps
Save your sleep for the night and resist temptation to snooze in the day. This will ensure you are tired when it comes to bedtime.

Go to bed and get up at the same time every day
The best way to sleep better is to keep a regular sleeping schedule, even on weekends. Go to bed at about the same time every night and establish a regular time to have breakfast. This will help reinforce the biological rhythms which establish your periods of alertness during the day.

Use light to aid your biological rhythms
When you get up in the morning, switch on bright lights or open the curtains to let in daylight. Exposure to the right amount of sun also increases your activity level. If you live in an area with limited sunlight, you may find yourself sleeping more and feeling sluggish during winter.

Only use your bedroom for sleeping
Refrain from using your bed to watch TV, work, use a computer or read, so that when you go to bed your body knows it is time to relax.

Make sure your sleeping environment is comfortable and quiet
A hot room can be uncomfortable. A cooler room along with enough blankets to stay warm is recommended. If light bothers you, get a shade or curtain/blinds. If background noise is distracting, wear earplugs or get something that generates white noise (such as an electronic fan).

Remember your rights
If you are living in a noisy house or hall of residence, it is still your right to have a good night’s sleep. If necessary ask housemates to be quieter at night and let them know when you are going to sleep so they can act accordingly.

Develop ‘sleep cues’
It’s important to give your body signals that it’s time to slow down. Try listening to relaxing music, reading a book before bedtime or having a cup of herbal tea. Meditation, Yoga and Tai Chi can all help train and focus your mind on ways to relax and breathe correctly, if you wish to research further.

Take a hot bath before bedtime
The drop in temperature following a hot bath may leave you feeling naturally sleepy.

Have a light snack before you go to bed
If your stomach is either empty or too full it can interfere with your sleep. A light snack containing tryptophan (such as milk or turkey) can act as a sleep inducer.

Ban caffeine, nicotine or alcohol for 4 hours before bedtime
Caffeine and nicotine are stimulants that interfere with your ability to fall asleep. Coffee, tea, cola, cocoa, chocolate and certain drugs contain caffeine. Alcohol may appear to aid sleep, by slowing brain activity, but it also contributes to disruptive sleep patterns.

Refrain from exercise for a few hours before bedtime
Exercising in the morning or early afternoon will not interfere with sleep. In fact, regular exercise is recommended, but the timing of the exercise is important as it also wakes up your metabolism.

Don't expect too much from yourself
Make a realistic list of the things you wish to accomplish at the start of each day. This will help you plan better, reduce worry and build confidence. Go back to this briefly at the end of each day and assess your progress.


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