Nearly everyone has difficulty getting to sleep from time to time, but for some people, this can be a regular ongoing problem. When this happens, not only do you feel tired but it can really interfere with your day-to-day functioning and affect your health. Learning how to manage sleep problems can greatly improve your quality of life.
Examples of common sleep problems
This is a condition where you are having trouble sleeping or staying asleep for long enough.
It generally includes difficulty getting to sleep, staying asleep (poor sleep quality) or waking much too early.
This a sleep disorder that causes an intense, often irresistible urge to move your legs. This sensation is brought on by resting, for example lying down in bed or sitting for prolonged periods, such as when you are driving or watching a movie.
It typically occurs in the evening, making it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep.
It can lead to daytime sleepiness, irritability and concentration.
Using this 2-week long sleep diary is a useful way to track your lifestyle habits or daily activities that could be contributing to your sleep problems.
Not getting enough sleep, or getting poor-quality sleep, increases the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity and diabetes. That means it’s important to take steps to get good quality sleep.
What can I do to improve my sleep?
If you are experiencing the effects of poor sleep, making a few changes to your daily routine and habits can make a big difference. Try these strategies to help you sleep better at night:
Set your body clock – go to bed and get up at the same time each day, including weekends. Wind down at bedtime – have an hour of quiet time before bed: switch off your electronic device, read, have a bath or listen to music. Avoid stimulants – within 2 to 3 hours of bedtime don’t: smoke, drink alcohol or caffeinated drinks, eat a heavy meal or do energetic exercise. Make your bedroom suitable for sleep – keep it cool, dark and quiet and use it only for sleep and sex. Reduce blue light exposure in the evening – it disrupts your body clock, causing poor sleep. So, if you use your phone or computer in the evening, switch it to night-time setting or, better still, turn it off. Get up if you can’t sleep – if you can’t sleep after 20 minutes or so, get up and do something boring until you feel tired, then try again. Don’t lie in bed getting frustrated. Avoid naps – don’t sleep during the day but go to bed earlier in the evening. Be active in the day – take regular daytime exercise and get outside early to help set your body clock for a good night’s sleep. Use an app – try an app or online sleep programme.
If these measures haven't helped, then visit your doctor to discuss whether you need other treatment. Your doctor will want to find out about what has been happening in your life, your pattern of sleep and whether you have any other health conditions. This is because the treatment for sleep problems varies depending on the underlying issue.
The main treatment options for insomnia is determining if there is an underlying cause and eliminating that cause.
It can also help to adopt good sleep habits.
Another possible treatment is a type of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) that is specifically designed for people with insomnia (called CBT-I). The aim is to change unhelpful thoughts and behaviours that may be contributing to your insomnia. It's an effective treatment for many people and can have long-lasting results.
Sleeping tablets or medicines that encourage sleep are not used often because they have the potential to cause harm. Using sleeping tablets on an ongoing basis can lead to you develop a dependency on them, as well as an increased risk of falls, confusion, dementia and difficulties with driving.
Taking sleeping tablets for more than a few nights in a row can make sleeping difficulties worse. If you're taking sleeping tablets on a regular basis, ask your doctor about ways to help you stop taking them. You may need to stop taking them gradually over several weeks to months before stopping completely.
Dr Matire Harwood from the University of Auckland discusses sleep problems, their causes and how good sleep habits can be developed.
(Goodfellow Unit, NZ, 2020)
Sleep restriction therapy
Sleep restriction therapy is a behavioural treatment for insomnia that works by reducing the amount of time spent in bed awake and not sleeping. Several studies have shown it to be effective for many people with insomnia.