It’s 2.27am. You’re lying in bed, staring at the ceiling. Perhaps you’re thinking about work, or running through tomorrow’s chores, or your child’s school report. Perhaps you’re thinking that this is the third time you’ve been awake all night this week and oh God why can’t you get to sleeeeeep?!
You’ve counted 1 000 sheep, 40 winks and two cats mating in the alley outside. And you still. Can’t. Sleep.
Apart from simply being frustrating, there is evidence that insomnia is linked to early death and serious declines in quality of life. Studies show that poor sleepers receive fewer promotions, have increased rates of absenteeism, and tend to demonstrate poor productivity. Over time, chronic sleep deprivation may lead to an array of serious medical conditions including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and even early mortality.
Many of us experience temporary insomnia from a few days to a few weeks. Characterised by difficulty falling asleep and/or maintaining sleep, this kind of insomnia usually results from normal events in our lives, such as stressful incidents, upheavals, illness, environmental factors and disruptions in your circadian rhythm.
Chronic insomnia – difficulty sleeping at least three nights per week for one month or more – can be caused by many different factors, and often occurs in conjunction with other health problems. Psychological factors such as depression, bipolar disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder may be the cause, while physiological causes may include substance abuse (such as alcoholism) and certain medical conditions (such as gastroesophageal reflux disease, Parkinson’s disease, hyperthyroidism, epilepsy, and fibromyalgia). Other types of sleep disorders, such as restless leg syndrome and sleep apnea, can cause insomnia. Also bear in mind that we need less sleep as we get older.
How to catch some Zs
Unfortunately, insomnia is quite difficult to treat if the cause is not easily identified. Here are a few dos and don’ts to help prime your mind, body and environment for sleep. But if you’ve tried them all for at least a week and still have trouble sleeping, consult your GP or a sleep specialist, who will help you identify the underlying cause. Visit www.sleepmedicine.co.za to find a sleep centre near you.
• Exercise regularly (in the morning or afternoon, not in the evening).
• Eat the right foods. Bananas, potatoes, oatmeal and/or whole-wheat bread are believed to aid sleep.
• Go to bed and wake up at the same times every day.
• Choose a dark, quiet sleeping environment that has a moderate temperature.
• Practise a relaxation technique before bed – meditation, breathing exercises and mild yoga are good options.
• Have a warm (but not too hot) bath before you go to sleep.
• Get up and do something for a while if you can’t sleep; try to go back to sleep again a little later.
• Have a mug of warm milk before going to bed – it has natural sedative compounds in it.
• Watch TV before bed – or check your email. Research shows that that people who consume electronic media (read: stare at a backlit screen) just before bedtime report lower-quality sleep.
• Sleep during the day.
• Eat a heavy, difficult-to-digest meal before bedtime.
• Drink any caffeine or alcohol a few hours before bedtime.
• Read or work in bed during the day.
• Allow your pets to sleep in your room! Animal skin cells and hair can create allergies that manifest only at night.