We’ve all been there – tossing and turning, not being able to get comfortable, checking the time, worrying about getting enough sleep for the next day. A bad night’s sleep leaves us feeling irritable and struggling to focus. It may be because we have something important or stressful to do the next day, like getting married or doing an exam. Many people can catch up with a nap or an early night the following night. However, if you are one of the many people who suffer from insomnia, the chronic difficulty falling asleep, or staying asleep, this one night turns into every night and you are perpetually tired and irritable. Sleep has many functions: While we sleep, our brain continues to process thoughts, discard those memories which are no longer necessary, transferring important memories into long-term memory, and repair and restore other brain functions. Since development happens at faster rates for babies and toddlers, the need for sleep is greater (10-17 hours). Even teenagers have an increased need for sleep (8-10 hours) than adults (7-9 hours). On the other hand, inadequate sleep is associated with decreased mood, poor concentration, weakened immunity, poorer resistance to pain, difficulty losing weight, and long term risks including diabetes, high blood pressure, and risk of heart disease.
If sleep is elusive for you, it is important to rule out medical factors, such as sleep apnoea, stress, anxiety, or other medical conditions. There are a number of ways to treat insomnia at home:
- Ensure your sleep environment is comfortable (i.e. is your bed the right firmness for you? Is the room too hot, or too cold?). Cooler temperature is better for a good night’s sleep.
- Our body is geared to sleep at night-time, so make sure your room is darkened.
- Many of us can’t sleep well with noise, for example if you fall asleep with the television on, you might wake up in the middle of the night, breaking your sleep pattern.
- Avoid vivid technology for an hour before bed (e.g. gaming, or a movie thriller) – try having a warm shower or bath before bed.
- Use your bedroom for sleeping and sex only.
- Establish a regular bed-time and stay within an hour of that time. For example, if you pick 10pm, aim for bed between 9.30pm and 10.30pm, depending on how tired you are.
- Lie in a position which are likely to sleep in, such as on your side.
- Shut your eyes!
- Take long, deep breaths into your belly.
- If your brain is active, counting or thinking of a monotonous mantra, can help to quieten your thoughts. Perhaps try a guided imagery or meditation script.
- Try body relaxation, which is the process of tightening and releasing the major muscle groups of the body.
- Avoid caffeine in the evening or even in the afternoon if you are particularly susceptible to its effects.
- Similarly, avoid a heavy meal immediately prior to bed.
- Habits such as drinking alcohol or smoking marijuana often get you to sleep, however your sleep quality is poorer, and your brain is less able to do its work whilst under these influences.
- Having a healthy exercise program can be useful, but don’t exercise close to bedtime.
- Supplements including valerian, magnesium, and vitamin B6 might be useful. Consult your health-care professional for advice.
- In some cases, melatonin or sleep medication may be necessary. Consult your medical practitioner in this case.
Sometimes the worry about not sleeping makes things worse! If you find yourself clock-watching or stressing about how much sleep you are not getting, remember that we physically cannot go without sleep for long periods of time, and that if you are lying in bed with your eyes closed, your body is resting and being nurtured.