According to the Mental Health Foundation, sleep is not just ‘time out’ from our busy routine. Most of us need to sleep well to help our bodies recover from the day and to allow healing to take place. But with increasingly busy lives it’s estimated that we now sleep around 90 minutes less each night than we did in the 1920s. If you add to this the large numbers who are known to have problems sleeping, it’s obvious that many people are now functioning in a permanently sleep-deprived state.

Lack of sleep can make us feel physically unwell as well as stressed and anxious, and scientists also believe that it contributes to heart disease, premature ageing and road accident deaths.

Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder, affecting an estimated 20% of people. Typical symptoms are:

  • problems falling asleep
  • problems staying asleep (so that you wake up several times each night)
  • waking up too early
  • daytime sleepiness, anxiety, impaired concentration and memory and irritability
  • Short-term insomnia, lasting for a few nights or a few weeks, generally affects people who are temporarily experiencing one or more of the following:
  • stress
  • change in environmental noise levels
  • extreme change in temperature
  • a different routine, perhaps due to jet lag
  • side effects from medicines

Chronic insomnia, lasting for a month or longer, often results from a combination of factors that sometimes include underlying physical or mental health problems. It can also be due to behavioural factors such as too much caffeine or alcohol or a long-term disruption to your routine such as shift work.

Helping Yourself

There are many things you can try to help yourself sleep well.

  • Exercise regularly, but at least three hours before bedtime.
  • Avoid tea and coffee and don’t drink a lot of alcohol before bed.
  • Try to go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day.
  • Only use your bed for sleep or sex. Your bed should be associated with sleep.
  • Establish a regular, relaxing bedtime routine that lets you unwind and sends a signal to your brain that it’s time to sleep.
  • If you can’t sleep, don’t worry about it. Get up and do something relaxing like listening to music or reading until you feel sleepy.
Treating Sleep Disorders

If sleep problems don’t respond to the life-style changes or behavioural approaches suggested above, you need to see your doctor. It may be worth keeping a sleep diary for the 10 days before your visit so you can explain the problem.

Doctors will generally look for any underlying medical or psychological reason for the problem and may suggest further changes to your routine or lifestyle to help improve your sleep. If these don’t work, a doctor may suggest sleeping pills for insomnia problems. Sleeping tablets can help in the short term but quickly become less effective and can even make your sleeping problems worse. They can also be very addictive. For all these reasons, sleeping pills are generally prescribed at the lowest dose and for a short period of time until you are able to restore a healthier sleeping pattern. If your problems persist, your doctor may want to refer you to a specialist sleep disorder clinic.

Posted on the Mental Health Foundation website