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8 solutions for common sleeping problems

22 May 2020

Missing sleep? Waking up hungry in the night? Try our tips to beat sleepless nights with these answers to common sleep problems.

Retro alarm clock set to two o'clock symbolising insomnia
Try our tips to beat sleepless nights

If you're lying awake at night wondering why sleep doesn't come you could be being kept awake by any number of issues - whether you're too hungry to sleep, your mind is full of anxious thoughts, or you just feel awake for no reason. Or perhaps you're sleeping, but waking up tired or needing an afternoon nap. Read on to find out the solution to common sleep issues...

Inside this article: 

Waking in the night or early hours
Waking up hungry
Can't get comfortable
Need an afternoon nap
Tired in front of TV, but not in bed
Waking up tired
Feeling tired during the day
Too stressed to sleep

Sleep spoiler: I keep waking up in the night

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 of us don’t realise that our need for sleep decreases slightly as we grow older. 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. This is, however, 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. To help deal with waking with the larks, 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. Before you buy, make sure that you check that the light box is designed to help with SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), and has the correct light intensity. Check also on how long you should use the light box for, and whether you are taking antibiotics or any other medication that might not react well to the use of a lightbox.

Sleep spoiler: hungry in the night

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

Sleep solution

It’s a catch-22 situation: your inability to sleep may be caused by your lack of sleep. “During rest the ‘hungry hormones’ ghrelin, and leptin, which signal 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.

Overeating lately? Read our brain tricks for weight loss

Sleep spoiler: can’t get comfortable

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 University College of Osteopathy, formerly British School of Osteopathy. “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, however it can scrunch 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.

Need more time to talk to a doctor? Saga's GP phone service offers unlimited access 24 hours a day, every day of the year. Find out more about our GP phone service.

Sleep spoiler: tired during the day even after enough sleep

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. This can leave you feeling groggy.

Tired all the time? Read more about causes and treatments for tiredness.

Sleep spoiler: tired in front of the TV, but not in bed

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 re-runs of cop shows have bored you to a state of slumber.

Need to talk to a GP from the comfort of your own home? Saga Health Insurance customers can talk to a qualified, practising UK GP 24 hours a day by phone. Find out more about our GP service.

Sleep spoiler: wake up tired

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 degrees Celsius, is more conducive to sleep. This is because it mirrors what happens 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: tired during the day

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: feeling too stressed to sleep

I’ve got too much stress and anxiety 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, which is 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. 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.

One solution can also be to face your troubling thoughts head on. Fighting these thoughts only brings them back more strongly. However, when you welcome your thoughts, you can look at them and put them into context.

"You respect the fact that they are a product of your mind, but you have the mental clarity not to take them as the literal truth," explains Dr Guy Meadows, author of The Sleep Book. "You no longer need to struggle to get rid of them, but rather accept them for the bits of noise or objects that just so happen to have arrived in your head. If you acknowledge them by saying, ‘There goes my mind babbling on again’, it creates distance between you and your thoughts. Then you can let go of them and turn your attention back to being still and calm in bed." Read more about Dr Guy Meadow's guide fixing insomnia.

Feeling stressed out? Read our guide to reducing stress, or visit our wellbeing section for more tips for a healthier, happier life. Still have trouble sleeping? Try one of these unusual ways to get to sleep.

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