We share expert tips to help you sleep better, from winding down to sticking to a bedtime routine.
What’s on this page?
What is insomnia?
Insomnia is when you regularly have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. Most of us have experienced the odd bad night’s sleep. When that becomes a pattern, it can be a serious problem.
What causes insomnia?
Readers who have shared their stories of insomnia told us they are kept awake by problems including anxiety, painful conditions such as arthritis, and menopause symptoms.
“My mind is just constantly active, and I find it difficult to switch off,” said one reader. Another said she was being kept awake by worrying about not being able to get a date for surgery she needed.
Dr Hugh Selsick is an insomnia specialist who runs a sleep disorders clinic at University College London Hospital. When he sees patients at his clinic, he first finds out if health problems are causing insomnia, so they can be treated. “We find that some people are being kept awake by pain. Or sometimes by restless leg syndrome, which is more common in older people and people with diabetes.”
Why is sleep important?
Dr Selsick says: “Insomnia is surprisingly common. It’s a serious problem and it should never go untreated. We know sleep plays a very important role in keeping good mental and physical health. When your sleep is poor, your mood, motivation and quality of life are affected.”
People have told us how sleep affects their daily lives. “I tire very easily and struggle with brain fog,” said one reader. Some said they had problems concentrating at work and others who had retired found responsibilities, such as looking after grandchildren or voluntary work, more difficult.
How much sleep do I need?
Dr Selsick says it’s a myth that everyone needs eight hours’ sleep, and some people function well on less. “The right amount of sleep for you is the amount that makes you feel alert most of the day, on most days.”
5 tips to help you sleep better
Our readers share their top tips for falling asleep faster, and having better sleep.
Some people said that mindfulness or other relaxation techniques have helped them. “The real breakthrough has been the past year’s mindfulness meditation practice,” said Mike. Others suggest counting, reciting a mantra, or listening to music, sleep stories, or podcasts.
Build in a period of calm in the evenings
Many readers suggested soothing activities before bed to help you wind down. These include reading, having a warm bath, herbal teas, or a milky drink. Some readers said avoiding screen for a better night’s sleep (computers, tablets and smartphones) can also help. Some suggested purposely “setting aside” worries at night or making a to-do list to help stop you worrying about the next day.
- Keep to a strict bedtime routine
Having a set routine helps get your body and mind ready for sleep. “Have a regular sleep routine, such as bath, bed, read,” said Lucy. Chris’ tip was: “Try to keep to a regular bedtime routine and avoid sleeping in the day.”
- Get help for anxiety or depression
Some readers have been helped by medication from their GP, or counseling, or both, for anxiety or low mood that contributes to their insomnia. “I found counseling helped by talking about the events that led to my post-traumatic stress disorder, with tips to cope with the insomnia,” said Deirdre. Some medication for anxiety and low mood can cause insomnia, so discuss with your GP what works best for you.
- Get fresh air and exercise
Getting out during the day has helped readers feel ready to sleep at night. Alison suggested: “Taking walks, gardening, getting more fresh air and eating healthily.”
Connecting your bedroom with sleep
Dr Selsick teaches techniques to ease anxiety and create a positive mental link between your bedroom and being able to get to sleep easily.
He explains: “If you are a person who has spent hours awake, staring at the ceiling, the bed comes to be associated with anxiety, stress and being awake. And we want to change that.”
“We ask people not to use their bedroom for anything other than sleep, sex and maybe getting dressed and undressed. Because we want them to associate the bedroom and bed very closely with sleeping.”
Creating a new sleep routine
Dr Selsick encourages people to get up at the same time every morning, whether you have slept well or badly. That eventually leads to you feeling sleepy at the same time each day, and a regular sleep routine.
He also discourages taking naps in the day, which can lead to disturbed sleep at night. “It is better to push through and save that fatigue for the night.”
He says it’s also important never to go to bed until you feel sleepy, when you have a better chance of falling asleep and staying asleep.
“If you don’t fall asleep within about twenty minutes, then get up, go to another room where you are comfortable and read, do a puzzle, or listen to a podcast. When you start to feel sleepy, go back to bed.
“In the short term, you may spend less time in bed. It can take a few months to take full effect, because you are changing a lifetime’s habits and patterns. But if you stick with it, we find this works remarkably well.”
Getting support with anxiety
Sleeping problems can be linked to anxiety. If you’re worried about your mental health, you should speak to your GP. There’s support available to help you live well.
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