Difficulty getting to sleep, or broken sleep, affects thousands of us every day. There can be many causes – from barking dogs and partners snoring to problems with mood or even thyroid disorders. The term “Sleep Hygiene” refers to the habits that help you have a good night’s sleep. Whilst some causes of poor sleep may need help from your GP, many of them can be addressed by small changes to your lifestyle and approach to bedding down every night.
The body’s sleep wake-cycle, or circadian rhythm, is determined by internal processes within the brain. Just as it takes time to adjust when flying overseas, it takes time to set up a good routine in your daily life. Sticking to a similar pattern every day will stop this clock becoming “confused”. Wake up every day at the same time and try to go to sleep at the same time every day. Obviously this is hard for shift-workers.
Don’t ignore when you’re tired, but if you’re not tired don’t make yourself go to bed only to lie in bed awake. This sends the wrong message to the brain and reinforces shifted sleep patterns.
Get early morning sunshine. Sunlight in the morning reinforces that this is the “right” time to be awake, helping with the sleep-wake cycle.
Cigarettes, coffee, tea (not herbal), soft and energy drinks all contain stimulants. These cause the body and brain to be more active and can make it harder to get to sleep. For some people even an afternoon coffee will affect their sleep. Even alcohol and illicit drugs like cannabis that seem to have a sedating effect will actually lead to poor quality and disturbed sleep. Sometimes your GP may prescribe sleeping tablets such as temazepam or ‘Stilnox’. Whilst they may be a temporary solution to certain types of insomnia, they have their own drawbacks and can cause dependence. Any use of these must be under close supervision by your GP and for a short period of time.
Alcohol is a depressant drug, which means it slows the workings of the nervous system. Drinking before bed may help you doze off but, since alcohol disturbs the rhythm of sleep patterns, you won’t feel refreshed in the morning. Other drawbacks include waking frequently to go to the toilet and hangovers.
If you are someone who worries at night, or who’s brain “won’t switch off”, try scheduling a half hour of time to think about your worries, often jotting down things on paper can help clear your mind. Once you hit bed, you’ll be able to push out those thoughts.
Try relaxation exercises and meditation. There are some great audio tracks on iTunes and CDs that will talk you through relaxation techniques.
Again, if this is a persistent problem, speak to your GP. Poor sleep can often be linked to anxiety and depression, or low mood. There are lots of things that can be done to help and you don’t have to suffer.
Written by Dr Patrick Mosse
Dr Mosse is a family friendly general practitioner at Castle Hill Medical Practice. If you believe that you suffer from sleeping difficulties then make an appointment with him today.