Most of us have had the odd sleepless night. If you have, you will know how annoying they are. You can’t quite get comfortable, you know you are exhausted, and you just can’t understand why sleep isn’t happening. It shouldn’t be a problem, after all, it has been a very regular part of your life since you were born. You spend the next day almost in a trance. You are so tired you can’t concentrate, and everything you do becomes a chore. You feel old when you have to go to bed so early the next night, but, at last, the beautiful peaceful sleep descends, and the world becomes right again.
Except it doesn’t become right again. Not if you are an insomniac. These sleepless nights happen more often than they don’t. For a lot of people cursed with insomnia, it comes and goes in cycles. Sleep could be fine for a while, and then all of a sudden another episode attacks. For some, like me, there is no ‘cycle’ and it is just very little sleep for a lot of the time. Of course, I do get good nights sleep every now and again. But even on a ‘good’ night I wake up several times. I just consider it a blessing if I can get back to sleep afterwards!
For those with insomnia, life is a vicious circle. We end up dreading bed time because we don’t want to lay awake for hours. Yet we long for bed time because we are so tired. And the worry about bed time makes the insomnia worse, in turn making the worrying worse. It is awful.
However, there are things we can do to help ourselves. First stop is always the doctor. Insomnia can be caused by underlying health conditions which may need attention- depression being a very common one. It may be that fixing the underlying problem fixes the insomnia! Whilst you are there, any doctor worth their salt will tell you about ‘Sleep Hygiene’. You should be given a print out of information, but Dr Google will give generally good advice on this one, as long as you visit reputable sites. Otherwise you might have amateur blogs like mine come up!
I have been on medication to help me sleep for quite some time now. However, if you visit a reputable doctor you will learn how difficult it is to get medication to help you sleep, particularly in the long run. Most will only give you a few tablets at a time. Which is a good thing, as sleep medications in particular are very addictive.
I am going to list some tips that should help you. Some of them (particularly sleep hygiene) will need to be a regular part of your bedtime routine for a number of weeks before you can gauge if they are being successful. I will always recommend trying each step for a MINIMUM of 6 weeks, preferably 8-10 weeks, before dismissing them as unhelpful.
Again, please note I am not a medical professional, I am writing my opinions and experiences only. If you decide to try herbal medications, be sure to talk this through with your pharmacist or doctor, as many herbal sleeping tablets will interfere with other medications. Good luck!
- Set up a bedtime routine. There is a reason it works so well for small children! Doing the same things, in the same order, at the same time each night will train your body to know when it is sleep time. This may just be the most important tip.
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol. Caffeine is obvious, but many people turn to alcohol for its sedative effects. This is a mistake for a few reasons, including it being habit-forming, disrupting the quality of your sleep, and making your body work more to get rid of it!
- Have a warm cup of milk before bed. Again, there is a reason it works for the kids!
- Exercise in the day. Exercising will, will, will improve your sleep. It is best to avoid it for about 4 hours before bed though, as you will be ‘buzzing’ from the post work-out energy.
- Lower lights. Our bodies get confused these days, because (unlike in times gone by) there is no ‘twilight’, we have bright lights, and then darkness. It is during the process of it getting dark that our bodies release melatonin, amongst other things, that helps regulate our sleep cycle. Having a dimmer switch or using bedside lamps will help mimic these conditions.
- Relax before bed. Sounds silly, I know. But it is very important to wind down. Otherwise all the problems from the day will be racing around in your head all night. Remove electrical devices from the bedroom. No TV, computers or phones should be used in the bedroom, and for an hour before bed. Yes, you will survive. Read a book. If you do read a book though, choose a light one. It wont help if your head is spinning trying to figure out ‘whodunnit’, and reading an exciting book you don’t want to put down will have the same effect! Reading light-hearted short stories is your best bet.
- Don’t sleep on an argument. Again, you need your brain to relax if you want a decent nights kip!
- Temperature: Getting the right temperature in the bedroom is vital, if it is too hot you will wake up, and if it is too cold you will wake up. I keep my bedroom at 18/19 degrees C, but I have a friend whose perfect temperature is 26 degrees C! You will have to experiment to find what is best for you.
- If you find you have trouble sleeping because you are trying to remember things, or you are thinking about certain things, try writing them down before you go to bed. That way, you can leave them there in your notebook until the morning instead of spinning round your head!
- Lavender is your friend. Lavender is brilliant for sleep. You can get lavender and chamomile scented plug-ins, lavender pillow sprays, sleep balms, candles, teddies, room sprays, essential oils and all sorts. There will definitely be some form of lavender that suits your lifestyle.
- If you like a cup of tea before bed, switch to chamomile tea. It has calming properties and helps your mind rest.
- Smoking. Don’t smoke for an hour before bed (quit altogether if you can). Smoking increases your blood pressure and pulse, sets neurons (brain cells) flying off everywhere, and, at the end of the day, is poisonous. You are wrong if you believe it helps you relax (I used to think the same)… in fact it does the opposite! People just think it relaxes them because they end up doing what everyone tells them to do if they are stressed… taking a few deep breaths! The more you know 😉
- Eat healthily!
So, there are a few tips to be getting on with. If you have researched this topic before, you will realise that the same things get said a lot. And if you are anything like me, you will have dismissed most of these, not believing they would make a difference. However, the truth, as they say, will out. And the fact that every reputable place is saying the same things can mean only one thing: What they are saying is actually right.
So, give all of the above a good go. None of it is expensive, you don’t need to hire someone to teach you how to do them, and you don’t need to buy loads of specialist equipment. These are safe, cheap, easy things you can do yourself in the comfort of your own home. What have you got to lose?
If you have given the above a genuine go and haven’t found them helpful, your GP may refer you for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to help. From there, they can then discuss the medication route with you- some do well with herbal remedies such as Nytol and Rescue, and some people who need help with long-term insomnia may be given specific antidepressants that might help, such as Mirtazapine. It is vital that you never start ANY medication, even if it is herbal, without first consulting your Doctor or Pharmacist (or other appropriate health professional).