Are sleep problems literally keeping you awake at night? It can easily descend into a vicious circle: because you can’t get to sleep, you become so stressed and frustrated that it keeps you wide awake. If you’re not careful, this constant lack of sleep can end up a chronic problem you can’t shake off without professional help. Of course, this is an extreme example. There are plenty of reasons why you might sometimes have trouble sleeping . Because you’ve had a stressful day, for instance, or have been affected by a major event – good or bad – like a birth or death. This is usually nothing permanent, and you start sleeping soundly again once you’ve properly processed the experience in your mind. Things only start to become a problem if you regularly find yourself lying awake for hours, or tossing and turning in your bed until the sun comes up. That leaves you washed out, irritable or absent-minded for the rest of the day.
About a third of adults have trouble sleeping from time to time, and one in ten suffer real problems on a regular basis. They also affect a lot of children.
When do you have a sleep problem?
The medical definition of a sleep problem is one that results in physical and/or mental symptoms caused by lack of sleep. How much sleep you need to lose for that to happen varies from person to person. Some people can live happily with just six hours sleep a night, others need nine or ten. The older you are, the less sleep you tend to need.
Quantity and quality
What makes for a good night’s rest is not just how long you sleep, but also how well. To understand why quality is as important as quantity, you need to know a little more about the process of sleep.
A typical night’s sleep consists of five recurring cycles, each lasting 90-120 minutes and divided into five stages. The first two of these are light sleep, during which your brain activity gradually subsides. Stages 3 and 4 are deep sleep, when your breathing becomes regular, your heart rate slows to a minimum and your muscles relax completely. This allows your body to recover from the day’s exertions. In stage 5, REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, you dream as your mind processes the experiences of the day and refreshes itself. Not surprisingly, stages 3-5 are most vital to the quality of sleep.
Because the deep sleep stages are longer during the first three cycles of the night, and this is also when we dream the most, this period is known as ‘core sleep’. It occurs in the four to five hours after you fall asleep and is the most important time for mental and physical recovery. In theory, then, this amount of sleep should be enough for a night. The fact that so many of us seem to need more than those four or five hours is probably down to lifestyle. Too much effort and too little relaxation during the day increase brain activity, causing us to sleep less soundly and paving the way for potential problems.
Causes of Poor Sleep
As just described, sleep problems tend to occur when you overexert yourself during the day and don’t take enough time out to relax. Other possible causes include:
- Stress ;
- Watching TV or using a computer late into the evening;
- Eating too much in the evening;
- Drinking alcohol or coffee, tea or other drinks containing caffeine in the evening;
- Physical complaints such as tightness of the chest, a cold, itching or pain;
- In women, hormonal changes during menstruation, pregnancy and the menopause ;
- Environmental factors, such as light, noise (including a snoring partner), heat, cold and an uncomfortable bed.
Sleep problems usually clear up of their own accord or are dealt with by taking basic measures. If they persist, however, they could become more serious and so it’s important that you seek professional help. The longer you wait, the harder it is to tackle your problem. Being constantly tired or drowsy during the day isn’t just annoying, it can also affect your physical and mental health. Or even be downright dangerous – if you nod off when driving, for instance.
To help you deal with your sleep problem, we give five basic tips and advice . We then look at other forms of treatment.
Five basic tips
- Watch what you eat and drink
Your evening meal can literally be too much to take, and so cause sleep problems. So don’t eat too late or too much, and avoid fatty and spicy dishes. Don’t drink coffee, tea or other drinks containing caffeine at all in the evening, and be cautious with alcohol – it may make you feel sleepy, but you don’t sleep as deep as you should and it can wake you up in the night.
- Relax properly
Proper relaxation during the day reduces the activity in your brain, enabling you to sleep better. There are all sorts of possibilities: sport, walking, cycling, yoga, going to the sauna, reading a book… Choose whatever form of relaxation suits you. And avoid taxing activities late in the evening – even things like serious discussions, working at the computer or watching TV. They can all be too stressful.
- Be comfortable
It’s easier to sleep well in a good bed, wearing comfortable nightclothes and in a dark, cool and quiet bedroom.
- Maintain a strict daily rhythm
Disrupting your daily rhythm can make your sleep problems worse. So try to go to bed and get up at the same time every day, and don’t take naps during the day.
- Keep calm!
Still having trouble falling asleep? Keep calm and try to relax. By reading a book, for example, or taking a warm shower.
Therapy and medication
According to a host of scientific studies, the best way to deal with a persistent sleep problem is through a sleep course or behavioural therapy. This clearly identifies the exact nature of your problem and provides you with the mental tools you need to overcome it. For more information, contact your GP.
If nothing else helps, as a last resort you may want to consider medication. You can choose between natural products like melatonin or valerian and prescription drugs – usually benzodiazepines. But note that these are only aids to help you actually sleep. They don’t tackle the underlying causes of your problem, and regular long-term use can reduce their effect or even lead to dependency.
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Last updated on October 3, 2018.
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