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If you regularly find it hard to go to sleep, or spend hours lying awake during the night, you’re not alone – it’s believed that one in three people will experience episodes of insomnia in their lives.
Sleep problems can leave you feeling tired, irritable and unable to concentrate, but luckily there are things you can do to promote a better night’s rest and alleviate these symptoms.
External factors can often trigger insomnia, for example, sleeping in a room that’s too hot or too cold, noise or light filtering in through the window, and an uncomfortable bed. Alcohol, caffeine or nicotine can also affect sleep patterns, as can anything that disrupts your circadian rhythm, such as shift work and jet lag. In addition, it’s quite common for someone experiencing stress, anxiety or depression to suffer from insomnia, or for physical health conditions such as chronic pain or arthritis to impact on sleep patterns.
According to NHS guidelines, children need between nine and 13 hours’ sleep each night, but adults should aim for between seven and nine hours. Although the amount you need to ensure you don’t feel tired the following day might change throughout your life, getting enough sleep can have a have a range of health benefits. For example, good sleep quality gives your body a chance to rest, regenerate and renew its energy levels, while poor sleep quality has been linked to weight gain and obesity.
In addition, not getting enough sleep can affect your body’s ability to produce cytokines – a protein that supports your immune system by targeting infection and inflammation. If mental health problems are causing your insomnia, it can be a difficult cycle to break, as sleepless nights can increase stress and anxiety levels.
The causes of insomnia differ from person to person, but there are a number of coping strategies you can try.
Set up a sleep schedule, where you aim to go to bed and wake up at around the same each day – that said, you should only go to bed when you feel tired. To prepare yourself for sleep, start winding down an hour or so in advance. Turn off the television and put your phone on airplane mode or leave it in another room. Mobiles and tablets emit blue light that can suppress the body’s production of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin. So, instead of swiping and scrolling, take a bath or read a book. Make sure your mattress and pillows are comfortable and the room is quiet and dark – it might help to use an eye mask or ear plugs.
Leaning how to calm both mind and body is a useful tool for managing any stresses or anxieties that might be preventing you from getting enough sleep. Explore meditation and mindfulness, and spend a few minutes doing some deep-breathing exercises before going to bed. Stand, sit or lie down – whatever feels most comfortable – and take a moment to scan your body from head to toe, encouraging each muscle to relax. Take a deep breath in for five counts through your nose, then exhale gently for five counts through your mouth. Repeat a few times, while really focusing on the sensation of breathing in a calm and controlled way.
Keep a sleep diary and look for patterns forming between what you did during the day and what your quality of sleep was like come night-time. Do you sleep better on the days when you’ve been more physically active? Is your sleep more disturbed when you’ve got an important meeting the next day? Experiment with eating a large lunch and a small dinner, as a big meal before bedtime can disrupt sleep. Similarly, try not to smoke, or drink alcohol, coffee or non-herbal tea at least six hours before it’s time to go to bed. Remember, learning to recognise the causes of your insomnia can help you devise personalised coping strategies of your own.
If you have trouble sleeping for a prolonged period of time and nothing you try seems to be helping, it’s important to speak to your doctor, who might recommend you explore sleeping aids.