Insomnia is on the rise, and doctors are seeing more patients with sleep related complaints and prescribing more sleeping tablets globally. But many of the daily activities that prevent us from getting enough shuteye at night are easily avoidable – or at least fixable without resorting to sleeping tablets. We just have to be willing to make the changes.
These are eight of the most common causes of sleep problems, and how to deal with them.
This generation’s cell phone addiction is one of the leading causes of sleep loss, for two reasons. The first is that we are addicted to the buzz of interaction, so it’s hard to stop at bedtime or avoid it when we wake up in the middle of the night. The second reason is the blue light that screens emit when we are using them, which convince our body clocks that it’s actually day time.
The solution: Stop using your phone half an hour to an hour before bed. And if you struggle to stay off the screen then charge your phone in another room.
Yes, you may have been able to knock back three cups of coffee before bed time when you were 24, but you’re not that young anymore and your body metabolises caffeine differently. The average half life of caffeine in the human body is six hours, which means that if you have a cuppa at three, half the caffeine is still in your system at nine. And the older you get, the longer that caffeine lasts.
The solution: It’s generally not a good idea to have coffee after lunch time, so if you find that you are struggling with sleep, cut your coffee, deal with the headache and the slump, and see if you get a good night’s rest.
Stress, anxiety and unfinished business are the enemies of sleep. These troubles usually rear their ugly heads in the early morning hours and the whirling thoughts stop you from falling back to sleep.
The solution: The best thing that you can do is address the root causes of your anxiety. List the issues and have a plan for dealing with them. Seek professional help if necessary. If you are plagued by midnight worries, keep a pen and paper next to your bed so that you can make a list of solutions when you can’t sleep. You can also try reading a chapter or two of a book to get your mind off things.
Hunger keeps you awake, and low blood sugar wakes you up. If you haven’t eaten enough of the right food in the day, you’re not going to get enough sleep at night.
The solution: Eat a high-protein snack like some almonds, a piece of cheese or a boiled egg before bed.
The human body is designed to sleep when it’s dark. If our rooms are too light because of electronic devices, outside security lights, thin curtains or the light on in the passage, our brains can get confused about what time of day it is.
The solution: Address the sources of light in your room. Buy thicker curtains, turn off or remove electronics and if you have kids, work out a night light system that doesn’t disrupt your need for darkness.
Sometimes, even if you’ve been to bed late the night before, you’ll find that sleeping late prevents you from falling asleep the next night. This is because your body tries to maintain regular sleeping and waking habits, so the more you deviate from your natural cycle, the more you’ll struggle to set it right.
The solution: If you’ve had a big night out the night before, try to wake up within an hour of your normal waking time, and then go to bed a bit earlier so as not to disrupt your cycle any further.
Although alcohol often knocks you out at first, you’ll probably find yourself tossing and turning in the sheets in the early hours of the morning. This is because of something known as “the rebound effect”, which is when the alcohol wears off after disrupting REM sleep, and the body wakes up before it is properly rested.
The solution: If you’ve had too much to drink, try having a big glass of water and a headache tablet before bed. Or you could drink less.
Whether it’s caused by allergies, a head cold or an anatomical condition, a stuffy nose definitely gets in the way of a good night’s sleep. It can cause sleep apnea, when breathing becomes irregular, snoring, which can wake up you and your partner, or just general discomfort and restlessness.
The solution: If you are suffering from a cold or allergies and the resulting blocked nose is preventing you from sleeping, ask your doctor for a prescription for medication that will bring some relief. You can also try a simple saline sinus rinse before bed. If you have a persistent problem with no obvious cause, schedule an appointment with an ear, nose and throat specialist to work out whether you have a condition that can be treated.
Sleep is crucial to our health and mental wellbeing. If you are not getting enough, don’t just shrug it off as a symptom of our times. Rather, identify the underlying causes and address them so that you can get the sleep you need and feel better in every other aspect of your life.
Of course, if you have tried all these approaches and nothing is working, you can seek professional help. The Sleep Clinic or the South African Society of Sleep Medicine are both good places to start.