Everyone struggles to sleep from time to time, but restless nights shouldn’t be a regular part of life: sleep is an important time for our bodies to restore things we might have lost or damaged in the day, for example by growing muscle and repair tissue.
See a doctor if you’ve struggled to sleep for a month, or if it affects day-to-day life, but if you’re not that worried then there lots of things you can do to help yourself:
1. Set the scene
Get thick curtains, an eye mask and earplugs to block light and noise in your bedroom. Insomnia preys on the tension that grows during waking hours while you wonder whether you will be able to get to sleep later.
2. Choose a routine
Set a regular time for going to bed and getting up, particularly if you have, until now, been keeping fairly regular night-time sleep patterns. Once you have a sleep schedule, resist the urge to nap. The BMJ advises that if you need to sleep
in the day, you shouldn’t take more than 30 minutes.
3. Frontload your routine
Check that your routine is not getting in the way of a decent kip. Work-outs can stop you falling asleep so move exercise from evenings to mornings, lunchtimes or afternoons. and eat your main meal of the day at lunchtime.
4. Cut back on stimulants
You may have already stopped drinking caffeinated drinks (tea, coffee, green tea, cola and hot chocolate) in the evenings. But if that hasn’t worked, cut caffeine out in the afternoons – or altogether. Nicotine is also a stimulant, so try to smoke less, or quit. On the same note, alcohol can disturb your sleep, so give up after-work drinks until you’re back to your normal sleeping patterns.
5. Enjoy your evening
Relax before getting into bed. Baths, books, music, podcasts are all good ways to downshift your pace, and none of them involve reading on screens or scrolling (unless you use a Kindle, which has a screen which is designed to be suitable to read before sleep).
6. Switch off
A recent study showed that using an iPad set at top brightness for two hours suppresses the normal night-time release of melatonin, the sleep hormone. There are no guidelines on when to switch off TV, phones tablets or computers, but try to have at least an hour without screens before bed.
7. Create a ‘brain dump’
Before bed, write down anything on your mind – anxieties, tasks for tomorrow. Once they’re written down, put them out of mind until the morning. Some people find having the pad by the bed helps them in case they think of something in bed, but others will find this a distraction.
8. Learn pro-sleep techniques
Try to learn one or two techniques for times you find yourself lying in bed awake.’Body scan’ meditations are a simple practice used across a range of relaxation disciplines. Alternatively, ‘cognitive shuffling’ has been promoted recently as a way to distract your mind. Search on Google or YouTube, or follow the links to learn more.
9. Make sleeping remedies a last resort
Dr Knut Schroeder, a GP in Bristol and the founder of Expert Self Care Ltd, advises that there’s not always good evidence that over the counter treatments for sleep problems actually work. They can become a crutch:
‘While OTC remedies generally don’t cause physical dependence, they may lead to psychological dependence. Evidence on the usefulness of many of these preparations is limited and often conflicting.’
10. Get some help
NHS Choices recommends waiting about a month to see a doctor, but if it’s affecting your daily life they advise going sooner. Dr Schroeder advises going to see a doctor of pharmacists if you:
- Regularly struggle to sleep, or have symptoms (such as pain or a cough, anxiety, stress or low mood) that affect your sleep,
- Worry that sleep problems impair your normal daily activities,
- Snore at night (or if someone tells you that you sometimes stop breathing when you sleep), or
- Feel so tired during the day that you nod off without wanting to (for example on the bus, in front of the TV, or after meals).
Likewise, Dr Schroeder adds, if you’re worried that sleeplessness might be a side effect of medication such as diuretics, antidepressants, asthma inhalers and steroids, or NSAIDs (e.g. ibuprofen), your doctor can talk you through your options.