Insomnia and sleeplessness guide
We all need to get enough good quality sleep to function well during the day, but if your sleep patterns are regularly disturbed you could be suffering from insomnia.
Insomnia is thought to affect one third of people in the UK according to Aviva’s Wellbeing Report, with up to 16 million adults suffering from sleepless nights.
This lack of shut-eye is often caused by stress, anxiety and depression – problems that can in turn become worse as a result of insomnia. Lifestyle factors, such as irregular bedtimes, poor diet and lack of exercise are also key culprits.
In this guide
What is insomnia?
If you’re having trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep for long periods it can really affect your wellbeing. We all have nights when we just can’t drift off, but when this happens regularly and over a sustained period of time, it’s classed as insomnia.
Insomnia can have a huge impact on your quality of life, both emotionally and physically. It can lead to trouble concentrating, irritability, anxiety and depression. And, the NHS warns that poor sleep can increase the risk of health problems including obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
When to see your doctor
It’s a good idea to consider what could be affecting your sleep patterns and to try some self-help remedies. Sometimes, all that’s needed is a change in your sleeping environment or your lifestyle. Read on to find out more about how to improve your sleep.
If nothing changes after you’ve tried this and you’re finding it hard to cope, it’s time to talk to your doctor who can help you explore your options.
Insomnia facts and figures
Regularly disturbed sleep can lead to the following common symptoms:
- Extreme tiredness – sleep helps your mind to rest and revive, so broken sleep can lead to a drop in energy levels and motivation.
- Poor concentration – you may feel more forgetful than usual, have difficulty focusing on tasks and struggle to make decisions. This can also make you more accident-prone and less alert when driving.
- Headaches – insomnia can lead to tension headaches, where it feels like you have a tight band around your head.
- Relationship issues – feeling irritable and short tempered? It’s not uncommon to take this out on those around us when we’re sleep-deprived.
Serious insomnia symptoms
If you’re concerned about any of these more serious insomnia symptoms, always talk to your doctor:
- Anxiety and stress – we need good sleep to allow our mind to de-stress, so when we don’t get it, stress levels can soar.
- Depression – when we’re tired our brains start to get foggy and we may feel more down than normal. Worrying about poor sleep can create a vicious cycle and the feeling that life is spiralling out of control can set in.
- Health problems – poor sleep can affect our health, attack our immune system and put us at risk of illness. Studies show that people who get less than seven hours’ sleep are 30% more likely to be obese than those who get nine hours or more. In the long term this can also lead to higher risk of diabetes and heart disease.
Getting an insomnia diagnosis
When you see a doctor or a health specialist about insomnia, they will try to identify the underlying causes first. They may ask questions about your sleep habits, how much alcohol and caffeine you drink, your diet and how much you exercise.
They will also look at your medical records to investigate any illness or medication that could be a contributing factor.
Often, you’ll be asked to keep a sleep diary for a few weeks to help your doctor build a picture of what’s happening each night.
Prescription sleeping tablets are rarely given out and are considered a last resort, but you may be offered a talking therapy called cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT).
Causes of insomnia
Pinpointing what’s causing your sleepless nights can be the key to improving your quality of sleep. Read through these common causes to see if any alarm bells ring:
Insomnia can be both a symptom of mental health issues and a cause. This is backed up by research into people with anxiety or depression which revealed that most only sleep for less than six hours a night.
A sudden, stressful event, such as losing your job or the death of a loved one, can often be to blame for short-term insomnia.
Everyday stresses could also be a factor. If you have problems switching off from your worries and you lie awake mulling things over, try talking to a friend or seeking professional advice.
Are you fit and getting enough exercise? If not, it could be affecting your ability to sleep well. Regular exercise helps to make you feel more tired and ready to rest and it can improve the time spent in deep sleep. Not only that, it helps to reduce stress levels, another common cause of insomnia.
Improving your general health with a positive approach to diet and exercise will contribute to boosting your immune system. However, be aware that certain health conditions can make it hard to sleep, these include an overactive thyroid, acid reflux, eczema, heart disease and asthma.
Changes to sleeping patterns are a normal part of getting older. If your overall quality of sleep is declining as you age, it could be because older people spend more time in the lighter stages of sleep than in deep sleep.
The menopause can also come with a set of sleep problems – increased anxiety keeping you awake and being woken with night sweats are both common complaints.
Sleep experts agree that one of the best things you can do to improve your quality of sleep is to stick to a regular routine, going to bed and waking up at a similar time each day. This helps to regulate the body’s circadian rhythm – the internal system that controls alertness and tiredness.
Winding down before bed is also important. That means no screens for at least an hour before bed and avoiding coffee, nicotine and eating during that time. Research shows that it might also be wise to steer clear of sleep trackers as they can lead to unhealthy sleep behaviours in some cases.
Banish all technology from the bedroom and create a calm, quiet and dark environment to help signal to your body that it’s time for bed.
Acute insomnia is the most common form of insomnia. It is a short-term problem that is triggered by a stressful event, such as losing your job or the death of a loved one. Chronic insomnia – when people have disturbed sleep at least three nights per week for three months or longer – is another common type.
There are no recorded deaths directly attributable to insomnia. Some studies have looked at whether insomnia can lead to premature death, but results are inconclusive.
Anxiety can be a contributing factor in some people with insomnia, but that doesn’t mean that everyone with anxiety will have ongoing sleep problems.
Many studies have been conducted, however none are of a large enough scale to produce a definitive answer. However, there is some evidence that acupuncture may help to benefit some people with insomnia by increasing melatonin secretion, stimulating opioid production and reducing sympathetic nervous system activity, leading to increased relaxation.
Natural home remedies for sleeplessness
Relaxation techniques that involve breathing and centring the mind can be helpful. Read our article on How to quickly overcome insomnia for some ideas to get you started.
Another good place to start is your diet. There are many foods to help you sleep and fight insomnia. The magnesium and potassium in bananas help to relax muscles, and almonds are also a good source of magnesium and contain protein to help stabilise your blood sugar levels.
Foods rich in vitamin B6, such as fish and chickpeas, encourage the production of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin. And that warm glass of milk may be a cliché, but it works thanks to the calming effects of calcium!
You’ll find a number of sleeping tablets available to buy at your local pharmacy, such as Sominex and Nytol.
Always talk to your pharmacist first – it’s not always recommended to take drugs like this as they don’t address the underlying cause of your sleep problems and there’s no clear evidence that they work.
Treatments prescribed by your GP
For similar reasons, prescribed sleeping pills are now very rarely given out by GPs. In severe cases of insomnia, and when no other methods have been successful, prescriptions may be offered. Mental health charity Mind has a useful list of sleeping pills and minor tranquilisers with information about how they work and side effects.
CBT is usually the first treatment to be offered by doctors. It’s a talking therapy that aims to change unhelpful thoughts and behaviours that could be contributing to your insomnia and is proven to be effective.
Did you know?
If you’re taking medication it may be time to reread the leaflet. Medicines for high blood pressure and epilepsy can affect how well you sleep, and so can antidepressants.