What to do when insomnia strikes

Saga correspondent

Missing sleep and tired all the time? Try our tips to beat sleepless nights



Sleep spoiler

I used to sleep eight hours a day, regular as clockwork. Now I find I wake up during the night, and far earlier in the mornings too.

Sleep solution

"Most people do not realise that their need for sleep decreases slightly as they get older," says consultant physician Dr John Shneerson, of the respiratory support and sleep centre at Papworth Hospital, Cambridge. "As you go through life you also tend to feel sleepier in the evenings and wake up earlier in the morning. Even after four hours’ sleep you may have obtained most of the rest you need, yet feel afraid of getting up earlier. But it is a natural trend".

What’s more, hormonal changes as you get older can cause more sleepiness in the evening and wakefulness in the early morning. The problem isn’t so much lack of rest as what to do when you wake up at 5am in the morning? To help combat the early bird syndrome try to get more natural sunlight in the evening, which will signal to your brain that it’s still wide-awake time. And when the daylight hours are short, consider investing in a light box. Go to www.sadbox.co.uk for a variety of lights, bulbs and desk lamps.

Sleep spoiler

I sometimes wake up and find I’m so hungry I can’t get back to sleep without eating something.

Sleep solution

It’s a catch-22 situation: your inability to sleep may be caused by your lack of sleep. “During rest the ‘hungry hormone’ ghrelin, and leptin, which signals to your brain that you’re full, are regulated to ensure you can fall asleep without hunger pangs”, says nutritionist Carina Norris. “If, however, you don’t get enough sleep, these hormonal levels get disrupted.” And this hormonal imbalance is enough to cause you sleepless nights, and worse, it can make you put on excess weight as you attempt to satisfy your unnaturally large appetite.

Try getting to bed earlier and go to bed at the same hour every night: your body requires a sleep routine to ensure complete rest. “Leave at least three hours between a big meal and bed”, says Norris. “A full stomach can make you feel uncomfortable and spoil your quality of sleep, or prevent you dropping off.” If the hunger pangs simply won’t go away, Norris advises eating something light, bland and carb-based such as a couple of plain crackers or oatcakes.

Sleep spoiler

I can’t seem to get comfortable - whatever position I lie in doesn’t feel right, so I toss and turn... eventually I fall asleep from sheer exhaustion.

Sleep solution

There are ways to make your preferred position more comfortable:

Sleeping on your back is ideal if you suffer with lower back pain, but to make it easier on your bones try putting a small cushion under your knees. “Doing this puts your lower spine in a more natural position”, says Stephen Humphreys, of the British School of Osteopathy (www.bso.ac.uk tel: 020 7407 0222). “And it should help you sleep more easily”.

Sleeping on your front: “I would strongly advise any patient to avoid sleeping on their front, but especially the elderly, or anyone with mobility problems and/or degenerative joint conditions”, says Humphreys. “This position puts excessive demand on ligaments, joint capsules and the joint itself in the spine as well as such joints as the hip, the gleno-humeral (shoulder) and knee”.

“Sleeping on your side can be a comforting, cosy way to sleep, it also scrunches up your neck and shoulder muscles, says Humphreys. “It’s also hard on your hips”. Put a pillow between your legs to allow your hips and pelvis to sit in their natural alignment and make sure the pillow under your head supports your neck properly.

Sleep spoiler

I sleep a good eight hours a night but still feel like I need a nap in the afternoon.

Sleep solution

Everyone experiences an energy “low” between 2 and 4pm, but how you deal with it can affect how you sleep at night. A nap of no more than 20 minutes should leave you feeling refreshed but won’t interfere with night-time sleep.

More than 20 minutes, and your body begins to move into deep sleep; when you rouse yourself after an hour or two, your body feels robbed of the rest of the sleep cycle (usually four hours) that it was expecting. "Doing this leaves you feeling groggy and more tired than before," says Dr Shneerson.

Sleep spoiler

I fall asleep in front of the TV, but when I head to bed, I find I can’t sleep even though I feel tired.

Sleep solution

You’d be forgiven for thinking that watching television would help you nod off, but in fact it will do the opposite. The sound and light show emanating from your TV stimulates your brain, making you less likely to sleep properly.

What's more, research undertaken at the Brain Sciences Institute at Swinburne University in Melbourne, Australia, has found that exposure to electromagnetic radiation from your mobile phone also interferes with sleep by stimulating brain activity. And watching TV or chatting on the phone also prevents you falling asleep when you’re simply tired, instead causing you to nod off when a programme ends or you finish your conversation.

Instead of sitting in front of the television or talking on the phone, find a bedtime routine to help your body prepare for the night ahead. Switch off the TV, have a cup of herbal tea or a milky drink and read a book or the paper, listen to music or do a jigsaw. That way, you'll go to sleep when you feel tired, rather than when One Man and His Dog has bored you to a state of slumber.

Sleep spoiler

I feel sleepy and muggy when I wake up, but I’m fine the rest of the day.

Sleep solution

If you wake up feeling as though you’ve got cotton wool stuffed in your nose and behind your eyes, it could be the air in your bedroom. Dry, hot air can dehydrate your sinuses, leading to less restful sleep, a stuffed nose and that attractive puffy-eyed look.

Try opening the window or turning the heating down before you head to bed. Scientists have found a cool room temperature, of 18-20 degrees Celsius, is more conducive to sleep. This is because it mirrors what occurs in the body during the night, when your body temperature is at its lowest; (it's also why it always seems particularly cold when you have to get up to go to the loo!).

A bath before bed is also a good idea: not only will it help to open up your airways and moisten your sinuses, it will also get you to sleep far sooner. Prior to sleep your temperature drops ever so slightly, and it's thought a hot soak helps you sleep because it warms your body, creating an artificial drop in temperature once you get out.

Sleep spoiler

I’m tired all day long, even though I get plenty of sleep.

Sleep solution

Quality of sleep is as important as quantity - you may be getting the hours in, but your mind and body need to be totally at rest for you to wake up feeling refreshed.

If you feel exhausted during the day despite plenty of hours in bed, it is possible you suffer with obstructive sleep apnoea, a condition that causes you to stop breathing for several seconds several times a night. This inadvertent breath-holding is the result of slack muscle tone in your upper airway - during the night, when you’re fully relaxed, your airway collapses, preventing air from entering your respiratory system. Luckily, you’re saved from self-induced-asphyxiation by your brain, which signals your body to reopen the air passages with a loud snort or snore.

People most at risk of sleep apnoea are men who smoke and are overweight - both contribute to slack muscle tone in the throat. If you’re concerned, ask your GP to arrange for an apnoea test.

Sleep spoiler

I’ve got too much on my mind so I am restless at night and easily disturbed by noises.

Sleep solution

If you have a willing partner, get a full body massage before you hit the hay. This will help get the tension out of your muscles that’s often caused by stress, and having your skin and nerve endings stimulated will help you switch off from whatever worries you’ve been mulling over.

If a willing volunteer isn’t to hand, try listening to “white noise” in bed. "White noise incorporates all sound frequencies from high sounds to very low sounds, and so has a very beneficial noise cancelling or 'masking' effect," says Reg Furlough, of Pure White Noise (www.purewhitenoise.com), a company specialising in CDs to aid sleep and relaxation. But it's not essential to splash out on a CD; the sound of a whirring fan or tuning in to in-between radio stations will also help you drift off.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.