Sleep plays an essential role in your health and wellbeing throughout your life. Getting enough good quality sleep has many benefits, including protecting your physical and mental health, quality of life and personal safety.
Common sleep problems
- sleep apnoea – when you wake up hundreds of times in the night, usually without noticing, because you stop breathing
- insomnia – trouble getting to or staying asleep
- restless leg syndrome – a cramp or creeping feeling in the legs in the evening or at night
- circadian rhythm disorders (such as jet lag and shift work sleep disorder) – where your body clock is out of sync with your environment.
- Sleepwalking and snoring are also common sleep disorders. They don’t usually cause problems for the sleeper
‘Sleep hygiene’ refers to your lifestyle and your bedtime environment that may make it easier or harder to get better quality sleep. Changes you can make to improve your sleep hygiene include:
- going to bed at the same time every night – this will help set your biological clock so you start to feel drowsy at bedtime
- creating your own bedtime ritual, eg, writing down the things on your mind that are worrying you or that you need to do tomorrow, reading a book, making a hot, milky drink or taking a warm bath – start your ritual at the same time each night
- reducing or avoiding caffeine, cigarettes and alcohol, especially in the evenings
- avoiding large meals late in the evening – but don’t go to bed hungry (have a late snack if you need to)
- exercising outdoors early or in the middle of the day (but not too close to your bedtime)
- avoiding TV, computer screens and mobile phones for an hour or two before bed as the artificial light interferes with your natural cues to sleep
- unwinding before bed by reading or listening to music
- ensuring your bed is not used for work or catching up on social media
- making sure your bedroom is cool, dimly lit or dark and as quiet and comfortable for sleep as possible
- turning around any bedroom clocks – clock-watching makes insomnia worse
How is insomnia treated?
Insomnia often goes away on its own, but it’s important to talk to your doctor if your sleep problems continue. Your doctor will talk to you about your sleep patterns, your lifestyle and any causes of stress so they can work out what might be causing your sleep problems. Some people may be referred to a sleep clinic.
If you are feeling very anxious about your sleep it may be useful to see a sleep psychologist, as worrying about your sleep can make your sleep problems worse. A type of short-term counseling called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help you to control worries, anxiety and negative thoughts that keep you awake. With CBT, you can learn how to calm your mind when you’re trying to sleep. 3
Sleeping tablets or medicines to help you sleep, such as benzodiazepines, are not often used because they can cause harm. Using sleeping tablets on a long-term, ongoing basis can make you dependent on them, and increase your risk of falls, confusion and cause difficulty driving.
Taking sleeping tablets for more than 10 nights in a row can make sleeping worse.
Some people can also get a drug withdrawal effect called ‘rebound insomnia’ when they come off sleeping pills.
Taking sleeping pills with alcohol or some other medicines can be dangerous. Sleeping pills do not help the causes of insomnia, but they are used sometimes if your insomnia is severe, to help short-term. They should only be prescribed for about 5 to 10 days, or on an occasional basis.
Melatonin is a hormone produced by a gland in your brain known as the pineal gland. It controls the body’s sleep pattern and sleep-wake cycle. A tablet that releases melatonin slowly over a few hours is available on prescription in New Zealand. It can be prescribed:
- to help with sleep problems in people over 55 years
- for children and young people up to the age of 18 years who have neurodevelopment disorders that make it difficult to sleep.