How important is a good night’s sleep, and how can you sleep better? Good quality sleep is an important part of health and wellbeing, and has been shown to have extensive benefits – from helping fight infections and recover from illness to improving low mood and maintaining alertness at work… Despite this, sleeplessness (insomnia) is a common problem and can leave you feeling overwhelmed and in need of rest.
There is no ‘normal’ amount of sleep that the body requires, however the average amount ranges from 6 to 8 hours, and this typically decreases as you get older. If it usually takes longer than 30 minutes to fall asleep each night that might also indicate sleep problems. Often, disrupted sleep patterns can be due to stress, shift work or jet lag which affect your ‘body clock’.
One of the simplest ways to improve sleeping patterns is through practicing good ‘sleep hygiene’. ‘Sleep hygiene’ refers to simple actions you can take in order to boost your body’s ability to sleep naturally. How could you sleep better?
- Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day.
- Take half an hour to relax and wind down each evening before sleeping (but avoid using electronic devices during this time). Many people find that a warm bath helps.
- Get enough exercise – it is recommended that you aim for at least 30mins strenuous activity a day, but make sure not to exercise before going to bed as this often makes you more alert.
- If you have a lot to achieve or are worried about the day ahead, Before bed, try making a list of tasks that you intend to tackle the next day – this can help to order them in your mind and prevent worrying overnight.
- Taking time out to yourself during the day helps to manage stress levels and can also promote better sleep due to reduced stress and anxiety.
Things to Avoid
- Avoid using your bedroom for anything other than sleep or sexual activity, and make sure it is dark, cool, and quiet.
- Avoid napping throughout the day – the most restorative sleep happens overnight.
- Avoid caffeine, smoking, and reduce alcohol intake in the evenings if this is high – all of these can reduce your ability to sleep. Caffeine and nicotine from smoke are stimulants, and alcohol affects the sleep cycle which gives you a much higher chance of broken sleep. Some people find that they have to eliminate caffeine completely.
- Avoid heavy meals late in the evening as this stimulates your gut – if possible have your main meal at lunch and a lighter dinner. Keeping meals at the same time each day will also help.
- If sleep doesn’t come right away, try getting up to take your mind off not being able to sleep, for example engaging in a quiet activity such as reading, in another room until you feel sleepy. It is important to avoid getting irritated with yourself – establishing a better sleeping pattern won’t happen overnight, and you will have good and bad days if this affects you often.
Treatment Options for Insomnia
In some cases, improving sleep hygiene alone may not be enough to improve insomnia, but despite this there are currently no drugs licensed in the UK to combat sleep disorders in the long term in children and young adults.
There are some medications that you may be able to buy from the pharmacy including at Chemist.net to help with sleeping in the short term, such as night nurse, which is a medication called diphenhydramine – a type of antihistamine (anti-allergy medication) that increases drowsiness.
For some people this medication does not work very well and there are stronger medications. However, these are not used very often due to their very addictive nature. Usually GPs in the UK will only prescribe them in special circumstances or for specific reasons. For this reason, it is never safe to request these online (zopiclone and zolpidem).
However, for some people, a drug called Melatonin is now being used. This is usually used in those over 55 years old with persistent insomnia, and is currently available in only one form, branded as Circadin. This medication can also be used as a jet lag medication to help offset the effects of jet lag.
What is Melatonin?
Melatonin is a hormone produced in a part of the brain called the pineal gland which is made during darker night-time hours to signal to the body that it is time for sleep. By taking supplementary melatonin 1-2 hours before bed the body’s natural mechanism for causing sleepiness at night-time can be boosted.
One tablet is taken each day for up to 13 weeks, and by this point many people experience improvement in their wellbeing and quality of life but it licensed for those aged over 55, and it is not commonly prescribed at the moment.
It is important to note that Melatonin is not a permanent solution to sleep problems as it cannot be taken long term, and should be avoided in pregnancy and breast feeding, as well as by those with liver disease.
The effectiveness of this medication is also lessened by cigarette smoking. If you would like further advice and medications for smoking cessation you can find further information at TheDoctorService.=
If sleep problems affect you it is important to remember that sleepiness during the daytime can be dangerous, especially if you’re driving or operating heavy machinery, and for support and further guidance you can contact a health professional for further advice. It could be that there is an underlying condition for your sleep disturbance.
Have a look at our article on Obstructive Sleep Apnoea to see if that could be contributing to your symptoms.
Further information and effective treatments for a variety of illnesses can be found on our website.
Edited by Dr Kiran Sodha & The Doctor Service
- BNF Section 4.1.1.: Melatonin
- Flynn Pharma Ltd. (2017). Feeling Shattered?. [Circadin promotional brochure]
- NICE CKS – Insomnia
- NICE evidence summary – Sleep disorders in children and young people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: melatonin, summary of possible benefits and harms
- Barnet, Enfield and Haringey Mental Health Trust University Health service – Sleep hygiene
- Dement, W. C., & Mitler, M. M. (1993). It’s time to wake up to the importance of sleep disorders. Jama, 269(12), 1548-1550.
- Morin, C. M., Bootzin, R. R., Buysse, D. J., Edinger, J. D., Espie, C. A., & Lichstein, K. L. (2006). Psychological and behavioral treatment of insomnia: update of the recent evidence (1998–2004). Sleep, 29(11), 1398-1414.
- Fox, M. R. (1999). The importance of sleep. Nursing Standard, 13(24), 44-47.