Updated: Sep 17, 2019
Sleep problems are very common and affect people in different ways. There is no “right” amount of sleep as this varies between people and across the life-span.
Sleep problems can occur for a number of reasons: as a result of age; medical reasons; emotional reasons; unhelpful surroundings; disrupted sleep routines.
There are different sorts of sleep problem. It is also possible to think you have a sleep problem when in fact you are still getting enough sleep but it is different from what you expect.
Why Can’t I sleep?
There are a number of reasons why sleep problems can develop.
Normal effects of ageing - as people get older they tend to sleep less deeply and need less sleep. Not only this, but sometimes people develop a habit of dropping off to sleep during the day which again reduces the need for sleep at night. This in itself is not a problem, but often not sleeping becomes a greater cause for worry, frustration and concern, which in turn leads to sleeping less well.
Medical reasons for disrupted sleep - Some examples are:
The need to go to the toilet during the night. About 60% of women and about 70% of men, aged over 65 get out of bed at least once a night to go to the toilet. Getting out of bed at night isn’t always a great problem, but can be frustrating if it is difficult to get back to sleep.
Another medical reason is pain. This again can be common in older age with joint pains such as arthritis.
Some medicines can interfere with sleep, so it is worth checking with your doctor if you are on any tablets.
Stress, anxiety and worry - sleep is easily affected by how someone is feeling. If someone is worrying about something or suffering from stress, very often they will find it hard to get off to sleep.
Depression and low mood - when someone is feeling depressed, disturbed sleep is common. It is quite usual for a depressed person to wake up early in the morning and find it hard to get back to sleep, or alternatively to have difficulty getting off to sleep,
Surroundings - can make a big difference to sleep. For example, a bedroom that is over hot or over cold, a bed that is too hard or too soft, a room that is too noisy or too light can all make a difference to how well someone sleeps. Sleeping in a strange place can also affect someone's sleep.
Disrupted sleep routine - people who work shifts which change frequently often have difficulty sleeping.
Is your mind working overtime thinking about problems such as work, relationships, money worries?
Get out of bed and sit somewhere quiet and comfortable with a pen and paper.
Write down the problems you are thinking about.
Taking each problem, write down everything you can possibly think you might do to solve the problem.
Choose the most helpful solution and write down all the steps you are going to need to take to do it. Write as much as you can.
Write down any obstacles and how you might tackle them.
When you are finished say to yourself firmly “OK. That is it for now. I can’t do any more about it at this time of night. I am not going to let myself worry about it till the morning”.
Spend at least half an hour winding down, reading a paper or listening to some music. When you start to feel sleepy go back to bed.
If you still find yourself worrying, keep saying to yourself “I’ve dealt with my worry for now. Worrying about it now will not help. I’ll deal with it tomorrow”.
If you don’t drop off to sleep within 15-30 minutes, don’t stay in bed
Good Sleeping Habits
Don't take naps during the day to catch up, this will affect your natural rhythm and only add to your problem.
Try going to bed later or getting up earlier.
Surroundings - Go through this basic check list and see whether there are any simple changes you can make:
Noise (too noisy, too quiet?)
Light (too light, too dark?)
Comfort (mattress too hard, too soft?)
Temperature (room too hot, too cold?)
Partner (or lack of one ) keeping you awake? (Sleeping with someone who is snoring may be adding to your sleep problem.)
Food and Drink - anything that contains caffeine taken near to bedtime, will reduce the quality of sleep. Examples include coffee, tea, hot chocolate and cola. It is best not to have any of these things within four hours of bedtime. If you are having a bedtime drink try to make sure it is decaffeinated.
Cigarettes - smoking last thing at night can keep you awake as nicotine is a stimulant. If you do smoke, try to have your last cigarette at least four hours before bedtime. Nicorette patches or chewing gum could also affect sleep.
Medicines and other drugs - Some drugs can affect sleep because they are stimulants. Examples are certain drugs for asthma and for migraine. Sleeping tablets, whilst they can help in the short term often cause sleep problems as they interfere with the quality of sleep and can alter sleep patterns.
Alcohol - It is best to avoid drinking large amounts of alcohol close to bedtime if you are having sleep problems.
Consistency - try to get a consistent timetable so that your body knows where it is. Going to bed and getting up at roughly
the same time is much better during insomnia than trying to catch up on lost sleep or going to bed early or napping at odd times during the day. If you feel the need to sleep in at weekends try to make it not more than an hour later than usual.
Pre-sleep routine - try to use the hour before going to bed to unwind and prepare for sleep. Try to get into a pattern.
Gradually - increase your daytime activity and exercise, but don't exercise too near to bedtime.
If you have not fallen asleep within 30 minutes - get up and have a malty drink like Horlicks. Listen to relaxing music, read a relaxing book or watch something boring on TV until you feel sleepy.