According to the NHS about one in every three adults suffers from insomnia, defined simply as the inability to achieve a full night’s restful sleep.
While it may not be the case that we all need a full eight hours every night, it is clear from numerous research studies that for most human beings an optimal sleep pattern of somewhere between five to seven hours is necessary to achieve the required REM state of deep sleep the mind and body needs to properly refresh.
There are some temporary reasons of insomnia which should be no cause for alarm; jet lag, illness, some medications, shift working, and high stress events like moving house, getting married or starting a new job may all impact on our sleeping patterns for a few days or weeks.
Unfortunately most sufferers have a far more prolonged history of sleep dysfunction lasting months if not years.
The origins might well be traced back to stress or anxiety about some particular life issue but this can very quickly morph into a virtually perpetual self-sustaining cycle of erratic or disturbed sleep brought on by the lack of sleep itself.
Over time sleep deprivation can make sufferers erratic and irritable, constantly tired, less able to concentrate with the consequent impairment of their abilities to handle everyday stress which in turn adds to their general anxieties.
In some cases the pure stress of not sleeping causes a lack of sleep.
There are some simple measures that can be taken, without resorting to medication or expensive sleep therapies.
Here are five practical suggestions that anyone can adopt to improve their sleep patterns.
Recognise the problem and start to live with it
One major issue in overcoming sleep dysfunction is a widespread unwillingness to acknowledge the problem in the first place.
So many people go to bed knowing that they won’t find sleep for ages or that they will wake up in the middle of the night and lie awake for hours on end and yet they persevere with a fictional ‘bed time’ and set the alarm for a waking up time like ‘normal’ people.
If you know that you are regularly sleeping for only three or four hours at a stretch it is better to recognise that and behave accordingly.
Set a time for retiring and getting up that reflects your true sleeping pattern. Go to bed later or get up earlier rather than fretting about it.
Then you can gradually start to extend the hours you spend in bed, by say 15 minutes a week, to retrain your mind and body to use that time to sleep.
You may find that the extra hours you spend on other activities will make you tired enough to need more time in bed but anything is better than allowing your mind to obsess about not sleeping.
Teach yourself to relax
Make a definite effort to prepare for sleep by adjusting your behaviour just prior to bedtime.
For a full hour before retiring to bed don’t do any work, or write and read emails or use social media or games apps; these activities are diverting but not relaxing.
Ideally mark a difference between your relaxation time and the rest of the evening by reading a book or listening to music. Avoid coffee, tea and alcohol or any other stimulants.
There are thousands of books and websites dedicated to teaching basic relaxation and meditation techniques – all designed to clear the mind of the day’s clutter. Try and find a method that suits you and use it to find your own ‘off switch’ before trying to sleep.
If you get into bed and find yourself wide awake you can quietly employ a simple breath control exercise to calm the mind and body.
Simply breathe, hold and exhale in three equal counts (usually five, but whatever you’re comfortable with...it’s the control and regularity that matter, not the duration.
So breathe in for a five count, hold your breath for five and then exhale for five and repeat. After one or two minutes you will start to feel calmer and more likely to sleep.
Similarly, if you wake up in the middle of the night and find it impossible to go back to sleep you might try a technique borrowed from yoga and breathe through the left nostril only.
Simply use your thumb to cover your right nostril and breathe exclusively through the left.
In yoga this is called ‘Ida’ and rebalances the body’s energies by relaxing the mind but there is mounting clinical evidence that it does have an immediately calming effect on the body’s metabolism.
Try it for two or three minutes and you will soon find yourself feeling more relaxed and drowsy.
Be careful not to block the wrong nostril though, breathing through the right nostril actually stimulates the brain and will have you wide awake and raring to go.
Use natural sleep aides
Chamomile tea or essential oils like lavender, vanilla and cinnamon have proven extremely effective in promoting short term deep relaxation.
Most supermarkets carry a range of special teas, if chamomile is not to your taste you might try lemon balm, peppermint or valerian. You’ll also have no trouble in finding candles scented with any number of essential oils.
Some people swear by their medicinal value but in all honesty the mere act of drinking a specific (and non-stimulant) bedtime drink and lighting a relaxation candle will help train your mind to think differently in preparation for sleep.
Top up your magnesium
Some estimates suggest that over 90% of adults in the UK suffer some degree of magnesium deficiency. Even a minor lack of this important element can magnify the effect of stress on the body and lead to sleeplessness.
Our modern lifestyle and diet of processed foods has reduced the amount of magnesium that is readily available for the body to absorb so although it’s not a definitive fact that you may be lacking, it is highly probable.
What is a known fact is the symptoms of increased anxiety and sleep dysfunction associated with magnesium deficiency so as an insomnia sufferer it is well worth taking a supplement in case this is a contributory factor.
If you enjoy finding out more about health matters then why not get the very latest news delivered fresh to your inbox every week? It's a completely FREE service so join up now, simply enter your email address below:
Please rest assured, we will never pass your email address to any other company. These emails are free and without obligation. You can unsubscribe any time you choose.