Sleeping problems - information and advice

Insomnia, or inability to sleep, is something that many people suffer from at some time. Usually, insomnia will last for a short while or come and go. Although the average time we sleep is often said to be eight hours it varies from person to person: some people sleep for six hours a day and some for ten.

Insomnia may start after an isolated incident or traumatic life event, or be related to a feature of a person’s lifestyle. Sometimes interrupted sleep is a side-effect of a medicine or occurs because a person is suffering from something else, for example painful arthritis.

Inability to sleep is classed according to how it affects us, and this is part of the way doctors work out the cause and find a treatment plan.

  • Difficulty falling asleep at night
  • Waking up during the night and having difficulty falling asleep again
  • Waking up too early in the morning, usually about 4 a.m.
  • Waking up in the morning still feeling very tired (which may also be as a result of one of the above)
Here are some of the most common causes of sleep problems:
  • Stress - Worry brought on by bad news received during the day or a difficult task to cope with the following morning. This particular cause is more and more common in our daily lives where there is an increase in such stressful events as bereavement, divorce and financial and family problems. Redundancy and other work-related problems like worrying about job security, important meetings or changing jobs can also cause stress.
  • Physical disorders - Physical disorders may produce pain, e.g. arthritis, or frequency of urination especially at night brought on by bladder or prostate problems.
  • Environmental factors - Sleeping conditions such as an uncomfortable bed or too much or too little air can certainly affect sleep patterns. Many people complain of noise - for example, from a partner snoring or noisy neighbours - and often light in the bedroom can be a problem.
  • Lifestyle factors - Caffeine - drinking a lot of tea, coffee or soft drinks with caffeine in the evening. Alcohol - too much too late in the evening can keep you awake and mean that frequent visits to the lavatory are necessary. Keeping erratic hours - shift workers or night workers suffer great difficulties in adjusting to the change in sleep patterns. The same will be true of people going through periods of change or exams. Long distance travel - travel across time zones is now so frequent that it is easy to forget how much of a problem ‘jet lag’ can be.
What can you do to help you sleep?
  • Avoid napping - taking naps in the day reduces the amount of sleep you need at night and can disrupt the pattern of night sleep. Your body only needs a certain amount of sleep if you are fit and well; so daytime naps are useful if you are unable to achieve a good night’s sleep regularly because of young children or a job but are not recommended otherwise.
  • Regular sleep - the body can ‘learn’ what time to fall asleep if you go to bed at the same time every night. This can strengthen the body rhythms.
  • Avoid stimulants - alcohol, caffeine and nicotine all have the potential to ‘pick you up’ and this will keep you awake longer. NB: some soft drinks (e.g. Cola’s) also contain caffeine, as do tea and cocoa drinks.
  • Reduce fluid intake - getting up in the night to use the lavatory can be avoided by reducing the amount you drink before going to bed. Diuretics (water tablets) if you have been prescribed them for another medical problem, should be taken early in the day.
  • Exercise, but not too late - take exercise in the late afternoon or early evening and avoid vigorous exercise just before going to bed. 20 minutes of exercise, three times a week, releases natural chemicals in the brain that will help with sleep.
  • Relax - reading a book, listening to soft music or the radio before going to bed can help you relax and get you in the mood for sleep. Don't study right up until bedtime, your brain will be too stimulated to sleep.
  • Avoid emotional upsets - although it may not always be possible, try to keep the hour or so before going to bed as a quiet time of winding down for sleep.
  • Ensure the mattress is comfortable - on average, beds are not recommended to last for more than ten years so it may be worthwhile getting a new bed. Be sure to try several before buying and do not choose by colour or price.
  • Soundproof the bedroom or earplugs. - If noise from outside is a problem, cheap and effective earplugs are sold at most chemists. Block out noises, or add in what is called ‘white noise’ - a gentle hum which drowns out the other environmental noises.
  • If you are still not sleeping - and you have gone through most of what is listed above, do not just lie there worrying about not sleeping. It is better to get up, read a book, listen to the radio etc. for an hour or so and then try getting off to sleep later. You may have to persist for a few nights, but as long as you do not sleep in the day, you will suddenly ‘click’ back into a normal sleep pattern. However, before that happens you should expect to get very tired in the day. For students particularly it is important not to slip into a distorted sleep pattern, because it can take a long time to change.
As sleeping problems are very often short lived, you may be able to overcome them by following the suggestions above. If however, the problem persists you may wish to consult your doctor.

Further information

Sleep Apnoea Trust

This article published on
26 January 2006

Next review date 01/01/2013

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