Sleep is more than time out from our routines. Most of us need to sleep well to help our bodies recover from the day and to allow healing to take place. It is essential for mind and brain health and storing the experiences we receive from our senses in our long-term memories.
Lack of sleep can make us feel physically unwell and contribute to stress and anxiety, and scientists also believe that it contributes to heart disease, premature ageing and road accident deaths.
What are the most common sleep disorders?
There are many different sleep problems, ranging from the inability to get to sleep (insomnia) to the inability to stay awake (narcolepsy). Many sleep problems are temporary, but sleep problems can also be a symptom of other conditions, such as a problem with your thyroid gland or depression, so it’s worth seeing your GP if your sleeping problems continue.
Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder affecting an estimated 20% of people. Typical symptoms include:
- problems falling asleep
- problems staying asleep (waking up several times each night)
- waking up too early
- daytime sleepiness, anxiety, impaired concentration or memory, and irritability
Chronic insomnia, lasting for a month or longer, often results from a combination of factors that sometimes include underlying physical or mental health problems. It can also be due to behavioural factors such as too much caffeine or alcohol or a long term disruption to your routine such as shift work.
Narcolepsy is a brain disorder that upsets how the body regulates your sleep patterns. One of the main symptoms is excessive sleepiness – sufferers can fall asleep at work, talking or driving a car. These ‘sleep attacks’ can last from 30 seconds to more than 30 minutes, regardless of how much sleep you are getting at night.
Sleep apnoea is a breathing disorder during sleep, typically accompanied by loud snoring. The person will stop breathing briefly at intervals during the night, which wakes them up briefly, thus interrupting their rest. People with sleep apnoea wake up to breathe hundreds of times during the night, which makes them very tired during the day. Usually they aren’t conscious of these brief awakenings. In one form of sleep apnoea, called Obstructive Sleep Apnoea, the upper airway is restricted, making this a potentially life threatening condition needing urgent medical attention.
Treating sleep disorders
If sleep problems don’t respond to the lifestyle changes or behavioural approaches suggested above, you need to see your doctor. It may be worth keeping a sleep diary for the 10 days before your visit so you can explain the problem. Doctors will generally look for any underlying medical or psychological reason for the problem and may suggest further changes to your routine or lifestyle to help improve your sleep.
If these don’t work, a doctor may suggest sleeping pills for insomnia problems. Sleeping tablets can help in the short term but quickly become less effective and can even make your sleeping problems worse. If your problems persist, your doctor may want to refer you to a specialist sleep disorder clinic.
There is no cure for narcolepsy, but the symptoms can be controlled by medication and by lifestyle adjustments such as changing your sleeping routine, improving your diet and more exercise.
There are many things you can try to help yourself sleep well.
1. Keep regular hours
A regular time to get up and go to sleep every day will promote a better sleep. Choose a time when you feel sleepy.
2. Create a restful sleeping environment
Your bedroom should be for rest and sleep, as quiet and dark as possible. Keep a regular temperature, with appropriate lighting and noise control. Your bedroom environment should help you to fall (and stay) asleep.
3. Make sure that your bed is comfortable
Consider your mattress (soft or hard?) and size of bed and how these contribute to your sleep. If you have a pet that sleeps in the your room, consider moving it, if it often disturbs you in the night.
4. Exercise regularly
Moderate exercise on a regular basis (5 x 30 mins per day), such as swimming or walking, helps to release the tension built up over the day. Vigorous exercise close to bedtime, however, may keep you awake, due to the chemicals released in the brain, physical recovery process and psychological factors .
5. Reduce caffeine
Cut down on stimulants such as caffeine in tea or coffee, especially in the evening. They interfere with the process of falling asleep, and they prevent deep sleep. Instead, have a warm drink, warm water or herbal tea.
6. Don’t overindulge
Too much food or alcohol, can interrupt your sleep patterns. Alcohol may help you to fall asleep, but disrupts sleep later on in the night.
7. Don’t smoke
Smokers may take longer to fall asleep, wake up more frequently, may have more disrupted sleep.
8. Try to relax before going to bed
Relaxing activities include having a bath, listening to quiet music or some gentle yoga to relax the mind and body. There are a range of fee relaxation CDs and resources available online and at your GPs and organisations in your community (RAMH Education & Information).
9. Write away your worries
Deal with worries or a heavy workload by making lists of things to be tackled the next day. If you tend to lie in bed thinking about tomorrow’s tasks, set aside time before bedtime to review the day and make plans for the next day. The goal is to avoid doing these things when you’re in bed, trying to sleep.
10. Don’t worry in bed
If you can’t sleep, don’t lie there worrying about it. Get up and do something you find relaxing until you feel sleepy again, then return to bed.
How much sleep do we need?
Most adults need between six and nine hours of sleep each night.
Babies can sleep for 16 hours a day while school age children need an average of 10 hours. People over the age of 70 may need less than six hours a night.
It is recommended by experts that you need “enough to make you refreshed and able to function efficiently the next day,” the number of hours required, completely depends on the individual.
Insomnia is more common among older people, and among women. Gender differences can probably be explained by differences in lifestyle, hormones, and perhaps the fact that fewer men report these problems.
What are sleeping pills and minor tranquillisers?
Sleeping pills and minor tranquillisers may be prescribed for a variety of conditions including severe anxiety and sleeping problems. These may include
- benzodiazepines for both anxiety and sleeping problems
- drugs for anxiety only
- drugs for sleeping problems only
Sleeping pills and minor tranquillisers are sedatives, which means they slow down your body and brain’s functions such as your breathing, heartbeat and thought processes. They can not cure anxiety or sleeping problems but they can help to control the symptoms. It is important to address the underlying problems where possible.
If taken correctly, they can:
- reduce symptoms of anxiety and make you relax and feel calmer
- reduce any sleep problems and promote a more healthy sleep pattern
How should sleeping pills and minor tranquillisers be used?
You can be prescribed sleeping pills or minor tranquillisers according to guidelines given by your doctor.
- if you have severe anxiety or insomnia that is having a significant impact on your day to day life
- for short periods of time
- if other forms of treatment, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) have been considered.