To sleep, perchance to dream

Two things in life I am short of are time and sleep. I sympathize with insomniac patients looking for a cure, but pills are never the answer. When I take a detailed sleep history from such people, the cause of their problem is usually obvious and relatively easy to fix.Yet why should a lack of sleep matter?

We know how awful we feel when we are short of sleep, but forget the longer-term consequences. Poor sleepers have twice the number of road-traffic accidents and spend half as much time at work as those who are good sleepers. Serious accidents at work are more common, with simple tasks becoming more difficult to perform. Decision-making becomes more difficult than ever, causing an increase in stress, which keeps you awake at night.

Alcohol, caffeine and tobacco all affect the quality of sleep. Although people think of alcohol as a relaxant — ‘I need a few drinks to get to sleep’ — it causes fragmented sleep later in the night, as do nicotine and caffeine. There is a long half-life in caffeine, including that in some fizzy drinks, which can puzzle people who have given up drinking coffee in the evenings but still have a problem sleeping.

I am a great believer in routine and sleep is no exception. Waking at the same time each morning helps the body’s natural rhythms, which promotes sleep at night. It is important not to lie in as this throws your body clock out of step.

If you spend the night tossing and turning there is no point in trying to will yourself to sleep; this is self-defeating. Get up and do something different instead until you feel tired again. Remember that ‘trigger pictures’, such as an image of an imaginary place, work better than counting sheep or thinking about the day ahead.

Exercise can help sleep but you need to be careful. Exercising late in the evening may exhaust you but will delay sleep. Get into the habit of exercising each day to improve your sleep pattern gradually.

The bedroom is important. Do not have it too warm as this may wake you in the small hours. Remove the television — the bedroom is for sleeping, not watching television. Sex is an excellent relaxant and nature’s best way of promoting deep sleep.

Sleeping pills do not cause natural or restful sleep and there is always the risk of becoming dependent on them. If you do need them, this should be for the short term only, to help break an abnormal sleep pattern.

There is no such thing as the right amount of sleep, but most feel satisfied with between six and eight hours a night. You will know what your body needs — ignore it at your peril. Better-quality sleep can be enough to slash your stress level, so take a long hard look at the reasons you cannot sleep and change them.

Combat insomnia by eliminating the most common causes: excess caffeine, excess alcohol, the absence of regular exercise or an overheated bedroom. If the problem persists try ‘trigger pictures’, relaxation exercises, a hot bath, herb tea or lavender oil.

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