The nightmare of insomnia. Most of us have been there at some stage in our life.
The amount of sleep that an individual needs varies, and often changes with age, but research suggests that sleeping too little (less than six hours) or too much (more than 9 or 10 hours) is hazardous to your health and increases your chances of stroke and developing metabolic syndrome among other things.
So getting the right amount of sleep is important. Short term sleep disturbance although frustrating is normal. There can often be factors contributing to a bout of insomnia, for example; stress, ill health, depression or recent personal trauma. Sleep difficulties can also be related to physical health (sleep apnea, anemia or even menopause for example). It’s always a good idea to see your GP if issues are becoming chronic to rule out a physical cause of poor sleep.
What can you do if you are not sleeping? In a healthy individual, assistance for sleep focuses on a few things. For short term sleep problems, the last thing you should be doing is turning to sleeping tablets. Sleeping aids (hypnotics, tranquilizers) tend to become tolerated over time, meaning you require more and more of them to get the same effect. It’s now been proven by a number of studies that regular use of sleeping tablets reduces life expectancy, which is scary enough in itself.
With that easy option out – here are some other suggestions:
- Establish a routine – go to bed the same time each night and get up at the same time even morning
- Start preparing for sleep at least 30 minutes before bed time. Ensure the bed is ready, close the curtains, turn off the laptop, stop checking your cell phone
- Ensure your room is as dark as you can get it (this may mean removing a bright clock) and is not too warm
- Try incorporating a relaxation technique prior to bed time (breathing relaxation, meditation, progressive muscle relaxation)
- Reduce caffeine intake overall, and definitely after about 4pm (don’t overlook tea, soft drinks energy drinks etc.)
- Reduce sugar intake throughout the day and refrain from large meals late in the evening
- Exercising during the day contributes to a better sleep
- Avoid high glycaemic foods before sleeping (i.e. processed carbohydrates)
- Avoid long naps during the day time (short naps – 20 mins or so are generally OK).
There are some herbal preparations which have been shown to be useful. Try your local pharmacy or health food store, and check that they will not interact with any other medication that you are taking. Often tablets will combine a combination of two or more substances, such as:
- Gotu kola
- Vitamin B6 (useful in times of stress)
- Melatonin has also been found to be helpful in some cases.
If it’s your mind that won’t allow you get off to sleep, writing down the things going on in your head can help (keep a piece of paper and a pen by your bed for this purpose – don’t use your phone or laptop!) .
Participants who took part in a study keeping a gratitude journal reported a significant increase in sleep quality (See my post on Gratitude).
Avoid alcohol. Although alcohol can help you get off to sleep, once the depressant effect of alcohol wears off, you tend to get a slight arousal response and whamo, you are awake at 2am.
One of my favourite methods when I can't sleep is to connect with my breath. Just focus on the in and out process of the breath. Every time the mind wanders, just bring it back to the breath. It tends to stops thought processes from getting out of control.
Rather than laying there getting frustrated, try getting up for 30 mins or so, have a hot drink. Stay off the computer as the light emitted is known to interfer with the nocturnal system in your brain. Read a book or find some other quiet activity.
New research suggests that gut health can play a role in anxiety thus affecting sleep. If it is mild anxiety that is bothering you, you could add a probiotic to your regime if your gut or diet isn’t up to scratch. Needless to say a good diet is also an important factor in overall health and well-being. (More on Gut Health here)
If all else fails. Let it go. Don’t panic, don’t fret. Relax and rest. Enjoy the peaceful process of being able to lie down, enjoy the peace and quiet. Nothing stops sleep like desperately trying to get to sleep.
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