Many people have trouble with sleep. It can be disturbed by distressing thoughts, bad dreams or concerns.
If you're stuggling to sleep you might find it very hard to fall asleep at night or find yourself awake extremely early in the morning. Even then, if you manage to sleep you may wake up feeling tired.
Quite often people’s sleep rhythm can become disturbed for various reasons which results in going to bed later and conequently sleeping in and missing much of the next day. Occasionally, day and night can be swapped, so you might find yourself sleeping during the day and awake at night.
Severe sleep deprivation is often very distressing and can add to depression or can make it difficult to concentrate or remember what you had planned. Additionally, if you don’t have enough sleep you have less immunity against illness which may result in you developing coughs, colds and other health problems.
Medication can sometimes help, but not always, because although it may help to lengthen sleep, it might not necessarily improve the quality of sleep. Also sometimes medication induced sleep (and alcohol and drug induced sleep) interferes with dreams and dreaming is very important for good mental health.
How much sleep do I need?
The amount of sleep people need varies enormously with age. Newborn babies usually sleep for about 17 hours each day, older children only need 9 or 10 hours a night, adults sleep for around 7-8 hours each night and older people need the same amount of sleep, but will often only have one period of deep sleep during the night, usually in the first 3 or 4 hours, after which they wake more easily.
Excessive sleeping is not healthy either since it can ruin your circadian rhythms. These are the body's mental and behavioral changes that follow a roughly 24-hour cycle, responding primarily to light and darkness in the environment.
People often worry a lot about how much sleep they are getting. Occasional poor nights are nothing to worry about and don’t have any long-term ill effects.
You may also find you underestimate how much sleep you actually have had. Short periods of being awake during the night feel much longer than they really are, so it's easy to feel like you're not sleeping.
If you have a serious sleep problem then it is advisable to discuss this with your doctor. There are some medical conditions that can cause sleep problems and sometimes there are treatments that can help. Your doctor will know about these and can assess your situation and advise you. However, there is some general advice that may be worthwhile following.
How to sleep well
Here are some tips that can help to improve sleep – they are known as "Sleep Hygiene."
Sleep only when sleepy. Don’t try to go to sleep if you are not feeling even a little bit tired. Wait until you feel at least a little sleepy. There are exceptions though: if, for example, you are the kind of person that sometimes experiences “highs”, and at these times you can’t sleep, then it may help to schedule in some rest periods even if you are not feeling sleepy.
Reduce the amount of time you are awake in bed. If you can't fall asleep within 20 minutes, get up and do something boring until you feel sleepy. Sit quietly in the dark or read something boring. Don't expose yourself to bright light while you are up. The light gives cues to your brain that it is time to wake up.
Don't take naps during the day. This will ensure you are tired at bedtime. If you can't get through the day without a nap, sleep less than one hour, before 3 pm.
Get up and go to bed the same time every day. Even on weekends! When your sleep cycle has a regular rhythm, you will feel better. Don’t have “catch up” sleeps – it spoils the rhythm.
Don’t exercise for at least 4 hours before bedtime. Regular exercise is recommended to help you sleep well, but the timing is important. Exercising in the morning or early afternoon will not interfere with sleep but being active late in the evening or just before bedtime probably will.
Develop sleep habits. It is important to give your body cues that it is time to slow down and sleep. Listen to relaxing music, read something soothing for 15 minutes, have a cup of caffeine free tea, do relaxation exercises.
Only use your bed for sleeping. When you go to bed your body needs to know it is time to sleep. If you are short of space and have only one room (in a small flat, bed sit or hostel) then make sure there is a clear difference between using your bed to sit on and using your bed to sleep in. You might, for example, cover your bed with a sheet, blanket or throw during the day, which you take off at night when you go to bed.
Stay away from caffeine, nicotine and alcohol at least 4-6 hours before bed. Caffeine and nicotine are stimulants that interfere with your ability to fall asleep. Cigarettes and some drugs contain nicotine. Alcohol may seem to help you sleep in the beginning as it slows brain activity, but you will end up having fragmented sleep. Using alcohol to get to sleep often results in waking up early.
Have a light snack before bed. If your stomach is too empty, that can interfere with sleep. Don’t, however, have a heavy meal before going to bed. The digestion process could easily stop you falling asleep.
Take a hot bath 90 minutes before bedtime. A hot bath will raise your body temperature, but it is the dropin body temperature that may leave you feeling sleepy.
Make sure your bed and bedroom are quiet and comfortable. A hot room can be uncomfortable. A cooler room along with enough blankets to stay warm is recommended. If your room is light then it will be hard to get to sleep. Close the curtains and if you don’t have any or they are thin then hang a blanket over the window. Or try wearing a sleep mask (the kind people wear on long haul aeroplane flights). If it is noisy where you live you could try earplugs.
Try not to go to sleep with the TV on. The light TV screens emit can keep you awake.
Use sunlight to set your biological clock: As soon as you get up in the morning, go outside and turn your face to the sun for 15 minutes