Around a third of adults have periods of insomnia, rising to half in those over sixty. Insomnia itself can have a range of causes – illness, the menopause, anxiety, and the side-effects of certain medication. What’s common though is the debilitating effect that lack of sleep has on people’s physical as well as mental health.
When I see people about insomnia and disturbed sleep I always go through the following 10 self-care steps with them. That’s about making sure that their ‘sleep hygiene’ isn’t the issue – essentially that they aren’t unwittingly prolonging their insomnia.
1. Reducing caffeine and sugar
If your sleep pattern is poor avoid using caﬀeine and sugar to give you a lift in the afternoon. Although you’ll get an energy boost at the time these will affect your sleep again that evening.
2. Reducing blue light
Avoid blue light, the kind emitted by smartphones, tablets, and some LED lighting, for 2 hours before bedtime. It’s light like this that directly affects your body clock, and cause problems sleeping.
3. Not using alcohol
Don’t use alcohol to help you get to sleep. Alcohol robs you of quality sleep, disrupting your essential REM dream sleep.
4. Bedtime snacks
Try eating a small amount of carbohydrate rich food before bed, like toast or cereal. The milk with the cereal also contains tryptophan, which promotes sleep.
5. Bedroom environment
For the best chance of good sleep your bedroom needs to be dark, quiet, and at a neutral temperature – for most people this means around 18°C in their bedroom.
6. Having a bath
Following a hot bath your core body temperature starts to fall, and return to normal. Your core body temperature also cools as you fall asleep, which is why taking a bath before bed promotes sleep.
7. Using ‘hypnotics’
Hypnotics are oils like lavender or neroli, which improve the time taken to get to sleep, and the quality of sleep. Try them in a diffuser, or in your bath.
Exercise promotes sleep too. Ideally it should finish no earlier than 6 hours before your bedtime, to allow enough time for your body become rested again.
9. The bedside clock
If the bedside clock is a constant reminder of your time spent awake then the answer is easy – put it where you can’t see it.
Not keeping the same bedtime and getting up time every day, including the weekends, is a common problem. This means not ‘catching up’ on your sleep with lie-ins, early nights, or afternoon naps as these all perpetuate your disturbed sleep pattern. Having taken all 10 of these steps there will still be times when you have insomnia, especially at the beginning. How you tackle this depends upon how long you’re awake.
If it’s been less than 20 minutes then try some moderately difficult mental arithmetic. Tests show that this helps people with insomnia fall asleep more quickly. An alternative is to try to stay awake and not let yourself drop off – for many people this has the opposite effect of promoting sleepiness.
If it’s been over 20 minutes you should get up, leave the bedroom, have a hot drink, and engage in some non-stimulating activity for 20 or 30 minutes. The aim here is to prevent bed becoming associated with feelings of anxiety about sleep. Continue reading more about this topic here.
Are you struggling with insomnia? Join the Sleep Support community on HealthUnlocked for tips, advice and support around managing sleeping problems like insomnia, circadian rhythm disorders (jet lag), snoring and sleep apnea.
Written by John McKenzie of Welldoing.org.