The nightmare of insomnia. Most of us have been there at some stage in our life.

The amount of sleep that an individual needs varies and often changes with age, but research suggests that sleeping too little (less than six hours) or too much (more than 9 or 10 hours)  is hazardous to your health and increases your chances of stroke and developing metabolic syndrome among other things. So getting the right amount of sleep is important.

Short term sleep disturbance although frustrating is normal, and you can do something about it. There can often be circumstantial factors contributing to a bout of insomnia, for example; stress, ill health, depression or recent personal trauma. Sleep difficulties can also be related to physical health (sleep apnea, anaemia or menopause for example). It’s always a good idea to see your GP if  your sleep issues are becoming a long term problem, so as to rule out a physical cause of poor sleep.

So what can you do if you are not sleeping?

In a healthy individual, assistance for sleep focuses on a few things. For short term sleep problems, the last thing you should be doing is turning to sleeping tablets. Sleeping aids (hypnotics, tranquillisers) tend to become tolerated over time, meaning you require more and more of them to get the same effect. It’s now been proven by a number of studies that regular use of sleeping tablets actually reduces life expectancy!

With that easy option out – here are some suggestions to help you get a good nights sleep:
  • Establish a sleep routine – go to bed the same time each night and wake up at the same time every morning.
  • When you get up in the morning, make sure you expose your eyes to normal daylight first thing on wakening. This helps your body to start producing melatonin. The amount of melatonin in your body peaks at night and this is what makes you feel sleepy.
  • Start preparing for sleep at least 30 minutes before bed time. Ensure the bed is ready, close the curtains, turn off the laptop, and definitely stop checking your cell phone!
  • Ensure your room is as dark as you can get it (this may mean removing a bright clock) and that it is not too warm.
  • Incorporate a simple relaxation technique prior to bed time (breathing relaxation, meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, mindfulness exercises.)
  • Exercising during the day also contributes to a better sleep.
  • Avoid long naps during the day time (short naps – 20 mins or so are generally OK).
  • Reduce caffeine intake overall, and ideally none after about 4pm (don’t overlook tea, soft drinks, energy drinks etc.)
  • Avoid alcohol. Although alcohol can help you get off to sleep, once the depressant effect of alcohol wears off, you tend to get a slight arousal response and you find yourself awake at 2am.
  • Reduce sugar intake throughout the day and refrain from large meals late in the evening.
  • Avoid high glycemic foods before sleeping (i.e. processed carbohydrates) which can cause a blood sugar spike and then a drop, which will disrupt your sleep.

New research suggests that gut health can play a role in anxiety thus affecting sleep. If it is mild anxiety that is bothering you, you could add a probiotic to your regime if your gut or diet isn’t up to scratch.

Some herbal preparations have also been shown to be useful, but do check that they will not interact with any other medication that you are taking. These herbal preparations could include:

  • Magnesium
  • Chamomile
  • 5-HTP (a precursor to serotonin which also works as a sleeping aid)
  • L-tryptophan
  • Vitamin B6 (useful in times of stress)
  • Melatonin (in New Zealand this has to be prescribed)

Needless to say a good diet is also an important factor in overall health and well-being.

Finally, if it’s your mind that won’t allow you to get off to sleep, writing down the things going on in your head can help. Keep a piece of paper and a pen by your bed for this purpose – don’t be tempted to use your phone or laptop!

Participants who took part in a study keeping a gratitude journal reported a significant increase in sleep quality. This is a simple activity. So when those unhelpful thoughts are running around in your head, try writing down a minimum of three things you are thankful for.

Another one of my favourite methods when I can't sleep is to connect with my breath. Just focus on the in and out process of the breath. Every time the mind wanders, just bring it back to the breath. It tends to stop thought processes from getting out of control.

Rather than laying there getting frustrated, try getting up for 30 mins or so, have a hot drink. Stay off the computer as the light emitted is known to interfere with the nocturnal system in your brain. Instead read a book or find some other quiet activity.

If all else fails. Let it go. Don’t panic, don’t fret. Relax and rest. Enjoy the peaceful process of being able to lie down, enjoy the peace and quiet. Nothing stops sleep like desperately trying to get to sleep.

Helen Duyvestyn, Mental Health Nurse, (RcN, MHSc)

Need a bit more help? Book therapy with me OR Find available therapists on Clearhead specialising in Sleep problems