We’ve reached the end of National Bed Month, a campaign by The Sleep Council which highlights the importance of a good night’s sleep.
Problems sleeping or a lack of sleep can have an huge impact on all aspects of your health, both physically and mentally.
Considering one third of the UK population are thought to suffer from insomnia, I thought this was a great opportunity to discuss sleep in a little more detail…
SO, WHAT ACTUALLY IS SLEEP?
Everyday our bodies naturally shift from wakefulness to the sleeping state, essential for our health and wellbeing. It’s a chance for the body to rest and repair. A lack of sleep can affect how well we function on a daily basis in the short term, but contribute towards more significant health problems in the long term.
The natural sleep cycle is controlled by our circadian rhythm, or “body clock,” and has 4 different stages, including light sleep, deep sleep and the well- known REM sleep, when dreaming takes place. Each night you should have between 5 and 6 sleep cycles, any less and you may well feel like you’ve slept badly.
The term “insomnia” is only used if your sleep problems, such as difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep start impacting on your life. If you’re feeling tired on a daily basis, having problems with your mood or concentration, perhaps a lack of sleep could be contributing.
HOW MUCH SLEEP DO YOU NEED?
Ask anyone, and they’ll be able to tell you how much sleep they need to function, and everyone is different. I, for example, need seven to eight hours a night. If I don’t reach my quota, which happens far too often, you’ll most definitely know about it; I’ll be irritable, low in mood and easily distractable, which obviously isn’t ideal. On the other hand, some lucky people can easily function on 5 hours or less. So, with this in mind, there is no such thing as a “normal” amount of sleep, just normal for you.
As a general rule of thumb, most people fall asleep within 30 minutes, and people aged between 20 and 40 need around 7.5 hours sleep a night, which decreases as you get older. However, as I mentioned above, if you get less than this and feel fine, it’s really not a problem.
WHAT CAUSES SLEEP PROBLEMS?
Sometimes sleep problems seem to come out of nowhere, which can be extremely frustrating. However, if you look more closely you may well find an underlying cause, or at least something that’s contributing to your sleep problems.
- THE WRONG SLEEP ENVIRONMENT
It may sound obvious, but sometimes it’s as simple as changing the enviroment you sleep in. If your bed’s uncomfortable, your sheets aren’t breathable, the room is too bright/hot/cold, it’s unlikely you’re going to sleep well. Making a few small changes to your bedroom can make all the difference. The Sleep Council have lots of advice on choosing the right bed and optimising your sleep environment, so check it out for some more information.
- A DISRUPTED BODY CLOCK
We’ve all been there; lying in bed wide awake with jet lag, when we really should be sleeping. The same goes for shift workers; a set of night shifts can disrupt your normal sleep pattern for a while after you finish (I’m so glad those days are behind me…)
Sometimes this is just an incovenience, but if frequent travel between time zones or shift working are part of your normal routine, you may well notice an impact on your sleep.
As I discussed in my previous article, stress can show itself in many ways, including problems with your sleep. In everyday life, there are lots of common “stressors,” including work, financial and relationship problems. If these persist, or you’re constantly worrying about them, it’s more than likely that it’ll affect your sleep. Sometimes it’s only when you’re sleep gets worse that you step back and reflect on just how stressed you’ve been, so don’t ignore it!
- MENTAL HEALTH PROBLEMS
Mental health problems including depression and anxiety are very common, and go hand in hand with sleep problems. Often addressing the mental health problem through talking therapies, such as cognitive behavioural therapy or medication can in turn help with sleep.
- CAFFIENE, ALCOHOL AND DRUG USE
It’s ironic that coffee, the Godsend we turn to in the morning to wake us up, can actually be contributing to our sleep problems in the first place- it’s the chicken and the egg scenario all over again! A little caffeine hopefully won’t cause too many problems, but if you’re having several cups throughout the day, it may well be keeping you awake at night, so avoid it after midday if you can or cut it out altogether if you think it’s the key to your sleep problems.
Similarly, even though a glass of wine can make you feel nice and sleepy, it may not lead to a settled night’s sleep.
The same goes for recreational drug use; it’s hard to go into detail here but drugs (both recreational and prescribed) can contribute towards sleep problems.
- CHRONIC HEALTH PROBLEMS
Many longterm problems can affect sleep, so if you have a known health problem, as well sleep disturbance, it’s worth discussing it with your doctor in case there’s anything they can do to help.
HOW CAN I FIND OUT WHAT’S CAUSING MY SLEEP PROBLEM?
If you’re really not sure what’s causing your sleep problems, it’d be worth keeping a sleep diary which will often identify the guilty culprit!
A sleep diary should include the following information (as taken from the current NICE guidelines):
- The time of going to bed and getting up.
- The time taken to get to sleep and the number and duration of episodes of waking through the night.
- Episodes of daytime tiredness and naps.
- Times of meals, alcohol consumption, caffeine consumption, and significant events during the day, such as exercise or stress.
- Rating of sleep quality (ask the person to rate the quality of their sleep each night, from 1 to 5, where 1 is very poor and 5 is very good).
Once you’ve recorded these details for a few weeks, it may become obvious what’s stopping you from sleeping, If you’re not sure, get your doctor to have a look at it- sometimes it just takes a fresh pair of eyes to identify the problem and point out that perhaps 8 cups of coffee a day isn’t normal…
SOME TIPS FOR A BETTER NIGHTS SLEEP:
In the medical world we use the term “sleep hygiene” which I’ve always found a rather odd phrase. Essentially, it’s a list of tips to help you sleep better. I’ve mentioned some of them above, but I’ll summarise them again for you here:
- Set yourself a bedtime and a time to get up in the morning. Even if you’ve had a bad night’s sleep, try and get up at the set time (and avoid sleeping in after a poor night’s sleep).
- Try to relax before going to bed. This could include having a bath, reading a book or listening to soothing music.
- Optimise your sleep enviroment! Think bed, sheets, lighting, temperature. I’m sure a few scented candles wouldn’t hurt either…
- Avoid napping during the day.
- Avoid caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol within 6 hours of going to bed, if you think they’re contributing factors.
- Avoid exercise within 4 hours of bedtime; the ideal time to exercise is between 3 and 4 in the afternoon, which can be understandably hard if you work a 9-5 job.
- Avoid eating a heavy meal late at night, but a light snack can sometimes be helpful
- Avoid watching or checking the clock throughout the night.
- Only use the bedroom for sleep if possible- again this is hard if you’re a student and your room is your entire home…
- Avoid screens before bedtime- the bright lights will confuse your body clock!
ARE SLEEPING TABLETS HELPFUL?
I like to think of sleeping tablets as serving a specific purpose, for example, helping someone through a particularly bad period in their life, such as a bereavement. Something to be used sparingly for a short amount of time. Generally, doctors are very wary of prescribing them these days, and for good reason.
Even though they often seem to be a quick fix, they come with a whole host of their own problems and don’t solve the underlying problem.
They’re known to cause a “hangover” effect the next day and if you wake during the night, you may well feel confused and drowsy, which can lead to accidents. Furthermore, if you use them too much , they can stop working altogether. If used regularly some people can develop an addiction to sleeping tablets- replacing one problem with another.
With this in mind I’d definitely recommend identifying what’s causing the sleep problem first and foremost, and only using sleeping tablets if absolutely necessary.
So, I hope this has been helpful and you’re all on the way to a better night’s sleep!
If you have any tips to share for a better night’s sleep, please feel free to share below…
But more importantly, if you’re worried that you have a sleep problem that’s impacting on your everyday then see your GP to get some help,
The clinical evidence and information for this article was sourced from the current NICE guidelines on insomnia, last revised in 2014, my own clinic experience, and information from The Sleep Council, who also provided the pictures used.