Sleep problems

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Most people have sleep problems from time to time. But some people struggle with sleep problems every night. They may be unable to fall asleep or to stay asleep long enough to get the normal seven to eight hours of sleep per night. Sleep is very important for anyone who wants to remain healthy. As you sleep, your brain rests and your body relaxes. Chronic lack of sleep can lead to higher levels of stress, irritability and physical complaints.

People spend on average almost a third of their life sleeping. We need sleep to rejuvenate ourselves, so that we feel well rested and alert during the day. The difference between being awake and sleeping is most noticeable in the brain: when we sleep the brain is less active and only registers a minimum of outside stimuli. As early as the 19th century, researchers recognised the importance of the relationship between the brain and sleep. However, their views were widely divergent.

Sleep problems

Not all people need the same amount of sleep. Some may thrive on six hours of sleep, while others may need more than eight hours to feel well rested. Sleeping difficulties are quite common. Some people have trouble falling asleep or wake up in the middle of the night and cannot get back to sleep. Other people wake up very early in the morning. At night, time stretches, and lying awake can feel like an eternity. This is supported by research: studies have shown that insomniacs think they haven't slept all night, while in fact they have drifted in and out of a very light sleep. Some people hate lying awake at night battling to go to sleep, others simply accept it. So when are sleep problems considered a disorder? Medically speaking, a sleep disorder is when someone is unable to get restful sleep on a regular basis, is consistently tired and unfocused during the day, and when their sleeping habits are affecting their routine activities.

What causes poor sleep?

There are a variety of factors that can cause sleep problems. Short-term sleep problems can often be traced to an external cause: noisy neighbours, a snoring partner, or physical problems such as pain, itching or respiratory distress. Eating heavy meals and late-night snacking can also impact your sleep, as does drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes close to bedtime. This is because coffee and tobacco are stimulants which make you feel energised. Sports activities and late-night meetings also make the mind more active. Shift work and travelling long distances often lead to temporary sleep disturbances because it disrupts circadian rhythms. Other factors can disrupt circadian rhythms too, like waking up or going to sleep at inconsistent times. Furthermore, sleep patterns tend to change with age: the older we get the fewer hours we need to sleep. Emotional distress, such as the death of a loved one or workplace conflict, is also known to affect sleep. Stressors can also be positive: excitement over an upcoming trip or date. It's normal for emotional events during waking hours to affect sleep. However, sometimes sleep problems can continue and lead to long-term issues. Constant worry about not being able to fall asleep or not getting enough sleep can create a cycle of anxiety. This can interfere with your ability to relax and naturally drift off to sleep. Sometimes the cause is unknown. Many people with sleep problems don’t know how they started. Some people have had random periods of troubled sleep from a very young age, with no obvious reason.

Is sleep deficiency bad for your health?

In the grand scheme of things, a few nights of poor sleep won't do you any harm. But if your sleeping habits are affecting your routine activities, it’s a different story.

What can you do about sleep problems?

Here are some tips you can try to improve your sleep. You should stick to them for a few weeks to notice improvements.

  1. Don’t sleep during the day. If you feel yourself nodding off or getting excessively sleepy, do something active.
  1. Don’t eat too much in the evening. It’s best to stop eating completely three hours before you go to sleep.
  1. Caffeine can have a disruptive effect on your sleep, so avoid coffee in the evening. (If you want you can have decaf instead.)
  1. Limit or stop drinking alcohol. Having a nightcap before bed has a sedating effect, which can initially help send you off to sleep. However, alcohol has a detrimental effect on the second half of the sleep cycle, causing you to wake up more often and sleep less deep.
  1. Do something relaxing before going to bed. Avoid household chores or work. Watching television before bed is also too much cognitive stimulation. Instead, go for a walk or have a bath. Sexual activity can also contribute to better sleep.
  1. Go to bed early, so you don’t have to worry about not getting enough sleep. Maintaining a consistent sleep schedule can help, too.
  1. Is a noisy bedroom keeping you awake? Earplugs can help block out sounds. You can buy earplugs at many pharmacies, or online.
  1. If you can't fall asleep, try to restart by doing something to distract yourself before going back to bed. Or get up and do something relaxing like listening to soothing music.

When should you see a doctor?

The signs that you may need to seek a doctor's help are:

  1. Your sleep problems are caused by a health problem.
  1. You have been sleeping poorly for weeks and the above-mentioned tips aren’t working.
  1. Your sleep problems are debilitating your daytime functioning.
  1. You would like information about a sleep improvement course.
  1. You are taking sleeping pills and want to stop. Your doctor can help you with this.

Medication to treat sleep problems

In addition to the above tips and suggestions to improve your sleep, there are a number of medicines and supplements that can help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep.

There are currently several products on the market that can help improve the quality of your sleep. If you have chronic sleeping difficulties, your doctor can examine you and, if necessary, write a prescription for a soporific medication. There are also natural sleep-inducing supplements and products available that can help.

In the 20th century, the medical community became aware of natural compounds in the brain that induce sleep. These compounds build up in the brain when we are active and awake. Not long after this discovery, researchers came up with a way to measure electrical activity in the brain. Until then, most people believed sleep was a passive activity during which the body and brain were dormant. But measurements showed that the brain is in fact active during sleep. Although it is becoming increasingly clear what changes are taking place in the brain, it is still very difficult to answer why exactly sleep is so essential to our health.

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