Insomnia, a sleep disorder, affects around a third of people and can manifest itself in different ways:
- Difficulty getting to sleep.
- Falling asleep very easily but waking up in the early hours and struggling to get back to sleep again.
- Waking very early in the morning.
- Experiencing non-restorative sleep (i.e. waking up still feeling tired).
Insomnia can be acute (lasting for up to a few weeks) or chronic (at least three nights a week for a month or longer) and, not surprisingly, periods of sleep deprivation can have a profound effect on a person’s ability to function well in their day-to-day activities due to the issues caused by sleep debt:
- fatigue and low energy;
- difficulty concentrating (with inevitable consequences at work);
- mood disturbances.
There are two types of insomnia:
- Primary insomnia – sleep problems that aren’t associated with any existing health conditions.
- Secondary insomnia – sleep problems associated with a health condition, medication, substance misuse, etc.
Insomnia can be a difficult disorder to manage because it isn’t treatable as such. It is caused by the mind’s inability to switch off – because people are desperate to sleep they become increasingly more anxious as sleep eludes them. However, as sleeping by its very nature means relaxing entirely, it doesn’t happen if the mind is completely focused on achieving it.
- Stress or anxiety. It goes without saying that feelings of stress or anxiety can negatively affect the quality of a person’s sleep.
- Too much caffeine. Caffeine has no nutritional value but many people consume a fair amount of it in tea, coffee, chocolate, etc. Its stimulant effect can last for many hours so it’s recommended that people don’t drink caffeine for a few hours before going to bed.
- Certain prescription medicines can cause insomnia.
- Poor sleeping habits (e.g. not winding down before going to sleep, lack of routine, using screens too close to sleep time).
- Not being sufficiently tired to sleep. For the perfect night’s sleep, it’s important to be sufficiently tired. Everyone’s body is different, but it’s wise to try to have done some form of exercise (maybe simply walking to work and back) if you’ve had a sedentary day. However, it is recommended to avoid exercising within two hours of bedtime.
Tips for overcoming insomnia
- If you’re having trouble sleeping, get out of bed and do something relaxing in a fairly low light (avoid using a screen).
- Practice relaxation exercises before trying to get to sleep.
- Don’t look at the clock.
Insomnia can’t be ‘treated’ as such, but there are steps that can be taken to try to reduce its negative impact:
- Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Because the main cause of insomnia is difficulty switching off thoughts and worries when trying to sleep, one way of helping to overcome insomnia is to learn how to break problems down into smaller parts so they aren’t so overwhelming, and to take practical steps to improve your state of mind. In a sense, CBT is all about dealing with problems head-on. If we have worries or concerns that occupy our thoughts during the day, these won’t miraculously disappear when we try to sleep at night, nor is it always possible to put them out of our mind temporarily when we try to sleep. However, if we learn to acknowledge our worries and concerns and consciously try to understand them and break them down into smaller parts so they are easier to process and deal with, we can begin to overcome them.
- Short course of sleeping tablets as a temporary measure. Whilst these won’t treat the underlying cause of the insomnia, they can help to bring some respite from the sleeplessness and the knock-on effect of sleepless nights.
- Relaxation training.
The positive effects of regularly getting enough sleep
Everybody’s sleep requirements are different, but it’s generally accepted that adults should get between 7-9 hours of sleep every night. And getting the right amount of sleep (not too much and not too little) is associated with a whole host of health benefits:
- Improved immunity.
- Staying slim, probably because sleep-deprived people have lower levels of leptin (the chemical that makes you feel full) and higher levels of ghrelin (the hunger-stimulating hormone).
- Improved mental wellbeing.
- Improved heart health – sleep deprivation is associated with increased heart rate and blood pressure, and raised levels of certain chemicals associated with inflammation.
Lack of sleep can be a contributing factor in a range of health conditions, and it can be very hard for a person to work effectively if they are sleep deprived. Sleep deprivation can be dangerous in the workplace where safety-critical activities are taking place. Support and guidance about work and health can be sought from Fit for Work, which offers free, online work-related health advice and guidance to anyone looking for advice and support about an existing case of sickness absence, or about issues that may result in sickness absence. Visit the Fit for Work website or call the free telephone advice line on 0800 032 6235 (English) or 0800 032 6233 (Welsh). There is a separate service running in Scotland (0800 019 2211).