Are you sleeping well? It’s more likely that you’re not getting enough sleep than you are. Around two thirds of adults get less than the recommended eight hours a night. And an estimated 1 in 10 of us are experiencing long-term insomnia.
So what exactly is ‘insomnia’? First of all, it’s important to note that it’s not the same as sleep deprivation. If you limit your opportunity to sleep, by choice or circumstance, that’s sleep deprivation. For example, if you’re staying up late to binge watch a box set, or not setting up your bedroom to be as sleep-friendly as it could be. Sleep deprivation is about habits, which can be changed. Insomnia, on the other hand, means you can’t get off to sleep – or consistently wake too early – despite your best efforts; it is never a choice and can happen for many reasons.
What’s true for both sleep deprivation and insomnia is that they will both have a negative affect on your health. From daytime drowsiness and concentration lapses to unwanted weight gain and even cancer, getting less than a good night’s sleep on a regular basis can be truly damaging.
What does a good night’s sleep do?
It has been proven that sleep is essential to all your body’s processes, both mental and physical. Sleep boosts your immune system, helping to prevent infection. It regulates your appetite and improves gut health, helping you maintain a healthy weight. It lowers your blood pressure, helping to keep your heart healthy. When you sleep well, you also learn more effectively, make better choices, and are able to think more clearly and creatively. There’s a reason people say ‘sleep on it’ when there’s an important decision to be made or problem to solve.
What can happen when you don’t get enough sleep?
A lack of sleep can seriously damage your health. Most people know that a bad night’s sleep can affect them the next day. Feeling groggy and forgetful and finding it more difficult to concentrate are common symptoms, but they seem short-lived. In reality, continually getting less sleep than you need can have much more significant, long-term consequences.
To start with, it’s easy to overestimate your ability to function when you’re regularly getting too little sleep. Many people still drive when they’re overtired and this is a significant cause of accidents on our roads. Poor concentration and slower reaction times are common. You might find it harder to keep your emotions in check too. This can have an adverse affect on your mental wellbeing, your mood, relationships and even your performance at work.
With poor sleep, your immune system is likely to be impaired, making you more vulnerable to all kinds of chronic conditions, including some cancers, heart disease, stroke and dementia.
You might find you struggle to maintain a healthy weight. That’s because having too little sleep can result in your body producing more of the hormone that makes you feel hungry and less of the hormone that makes you feel full up after a meal. Being overweight can lead to many other health problems, including diabetes, as well as low self-esteem and other mental wellbeing issues. Too little sleep can also make you more likely to indulge in risky or addictive behaviours.
Are you getting enough?
How can you tell if you’re sleep deprived? Think about when get up in the morning. Do you feel you could you easily go back to sleep again two hours after waking? On a normal morning, do you need a strong coffee or tea before you can function properly? If the answer is yes to both, you’re almost certainly not getting enough good quality sleep.
So what can you do about it? The good news is: plenty. For many people, not getting enough sleep is easy to remedy with a few lifestyle changes. Before you do anything else, like checking yourself into an expensive sleep clinic, or asking your doctor for medication, follow the ‘sleep hygiene’ guide:
Sleep hygiene guide: tips to improve your sleeping
If you’re struggling to get enough quality sleep, consider your ‘sleep hygiene’. Are you currently giving yourself the best chance of sleep? The following are all simple things you can do to help you fall asleep easily and stay asleep for longer. Address all the following points before you do anything else. You’ll be surprised at how much you can do to improve your sleeping and how much difference it will make to your life and health when you do.
Create a comfortable bedroom
It may seem obvious, but make sure the room you sleep in is set up for the job. Your bedroom should be quiet and uncluttered, furnishings should be comfortable and soft, any smells should be pleasant, and the room should be kept cool and dark. Clean sheets make all the difference. Invest in a good quality mattress and pillows if you can.
Keep it to nighttime only
Do all your daytime activities in a different room or area. When you use your bedroom for watching TV, playing video games, eating or working, your mind associates the space with being awake and active, rather than relaxed and sleep-ready. Make some changes. Move your TV to another room, set up your games console or your desk elsewhere. Keep your mobile phone switched off or in a different room at night, so you’re not tempted to check your messages or log in to social media. If you use your phone as an alarm clock, stop and get yourself a real alarm clock instead.
Turn the lights down
Too much light in your bedroom can reduce the amount of melatonin your body produces by up to half. Melatonin is vital for sleep, as it signals to your body that it’s time to begin the sleep process. Limit the amount of artificial light in your bedroom after dark. Switch off your mobile phone. Or, better still, leave it in another room.
Prepare for sleep during the day
What you do during the day can make a significant difference to how well you sleep at night. First and foremost, get some regular exercise. Whether it’s a brisk walk or full aerobic workout doesn’t really matter, but it’s best to do any vigorous exercises earlier in the day. If you’re exercising closer to bedtime, de-stressing is the key. You could try yoga or pilates.
Try to get outdoors for at least 30 minutes of natural sunlight a day. Sunlight helps regulate your melatonin production, which sets and maintains your natural sleep rhythm.
Avoid daytime napping. It may seem to help you when you’ve had a bad night’s sleep, but it actually disrupts your circadian rhythm. This is the daily cycle that determines when your body wakes and sleeps. It peaks a few hours after waking, then gradually declines for the rest of the day, eventually getting to a point where you feel sleepy and need to rest before the cycle begins again.
Stick to the schedule
Routine is king when it comes to getting a good night’s sleep on a regular basis. Set a bedtime and a wake-up time. And stick to them. Even at weekends, if you can. You’ll need to get to know your natural rhythm. Chances are you already know whether you’re an owl or a lark. If you’re an owl, you’ll feel the need to stay up late and won’t function well if you get up too early in the morning. Larks are the opposite: you’re alert first thing and need to head to bed early too. Set a schedule that works for you and, after a few weeks, you’ll find you’ll naturally wake up and fall asleep at the right times.
Start a relaxing bedtime routine
Make your time before bed all about de-stressing. Taking a warm bath is a tried and tested method. As well as relaxing in itself, when you get out, your temperature will drop, helping you feel even sleepier. You could also get into the habit of meditating or self-reflection. Always avoid having large meals before bed as it can cause indigestion. Keep drinks to a minimum too, so you’re not up and down to the toilet all night.
Curb the caffeine habit
Cut back on caffeine during the day, as it can seriously disrupt your natural sleep rhythm. If you enjoy an espresso at 7pm, half the caffeine would still be fizzing round your system at 1am, keeping you very much awake. Don’t forget that caffeine is in many carbonated drinks too; it’s not just tea and coffee.
Avoid alcohol before bed
It’s a myth that a ‘night-cap’ before bed will help you sleep. Alcohol is actually a stimulant. You may seem to fall asleep quickly, but it’s likely to be a poor quality sleep that’s closer to a state of sedation. Your REM stage of sleep will be disrupted too. This important stage is when you dream, and when your brain is actively working to improve memory, mood, and other psychological benefits.
Check your medication
It’s worth checking whether any of the medicines you take could be affecting your sleep. Some cough and cold medicine and asthma medications are known to. Always consult with your doctor first.
Avoid the temptation to resort to sleeping pills too. Like alcohol, they induce a state of sedation, rather than natural sleep. You can also become addicted quickly and suffer withdrawal symptoms. Always consult an doctor before self-medicating.
Don’t just lie there
If you can’t sleep, it’s best not to lie in bed awake stressing about the fact that you can’t sleep. It simply won’t help. If you’ve not dropped off naturally after about 20 minutes of going to bed, get up and do something else. Keep the lights low and make sure it’s a relaxing activity. Just getting out of bed will lower your temperature too, which should help you feel sleepy again.
Finally, take the pressure off
Everyone needs a different amount of sleep. And it can change as you go through life. So try not to get stressed about your situation. Thinking “I simply have to get eight hours’ a night” is more likely to lead to anxiety and insomnia. Give yourself a break.
If you’re getting top marks for your sleep hygiene, but are still struggling with sleep deprivation or insomnia, there’s more you can do to help yourself. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a proven approach to changing ingrained habits, including those that may be holding you back from getting a good night’s sleep. The innovative wellbeing app, AIME can help you explore CBT and sleep.