Can’t sleep? Our guide to dealing with insomnia

Woman lying in bed covering her eyes


Lying awake at night staring at the ceiling, tossing and turning, and counting more sheep than you ever thought you’d see in your life? You’re not alone, our 2018 sleep survey revealed that only 16% of people feel they get enough sleep every night.


Lots of people are up all night struggling with insomnia, so today we’re going to take a look at what insomnia is and why so many of us can’t seem to get those 8 hours of sleep we really need.


What is insomnia?


Insomnia just means that you regularly have trouble getting to sleep and staying asleep.


Lots of people have the occasional sleepless night, but if you struggle to get to sleep quite often you could be suffering with insomnia.


Insomnia doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be lying there staring at the ceiling all night long, you could get a few hours of sleep but find that you wake up in the night and struggle to get back to sleep.


When your alarm goes off in the morning and you still feel exhausted and stumble through your day like a zombie with a migraine, you know that all of that interrupted sleep has started to catch up with you.


If all of these things sound more familiar than you’d like them too, you could be suffering with insomnia.



How much sleep do you need every night?


You’ve probably heard someone in your life tell you that they “need their 8 hours” to function, and those people aren’t wrong!


The NHS suggests that an adult needs an average of 7 – 9 hours of sleep every night to be at our best.


Some people might need every minute of those 9 hours, whereas others are up at the crack of dawn after a good 7 hours.


The amount of sleep you need is different for everyone, and if you’re regularly not getting as much sleep as you need then the affects of insomnia can make your life miserable.



Why can’t I sleep?


Insomnia and sleepless nights can be caused by lots of different problems, some are physical, some are mental, and some are just down to where you are and what you’re doing.


We’re going to look at some of the most common causes of insomnia one by one, so you can see whether you think any of them apply to you.


Sleep and anxiety


If you suffer with anxiety, stress, or depression then you could find that all of the activity in your brain can keep you up at night.


Anxiety and stress can both leave you lying awake at night feeling tense and worrying about what the next day might bring.


In addition, insomnia is a common side effect of depression, and some studies have even shown that insomnia and depression can make each other worse.


It’s an unhappy cycle that many people who suffer with any or all of these conditions have to deal with every night, so don’t overlook the connection if you’re regularly lying awake at night worrying.



Insomnia and menopause


When you go through menopause you’ll start to suffer with a lot of symptoms that you knew were going to happen one day, but never really wanted to go through.


You hear about the hot flushes and the night sweats and the end of your periods, but did you know that you could suffer with insomnia as the result of menopause? Well, it’s true.


Insomnia is a common symptom of menopause, as you’ll find out when you’re lying awake with hot flushes sweating through your bed sheets. What a joy.


Your environment


Sometimes your insomnia can be blamed on something as simple as your environment. If your bedroom is too hot or too cold, you can struggle to get a good night’s sleep.


You may also struggle if there’s too much light in the room, there’s too much noise, or if your bed is just plain uncomfortable, so make like Goldilocks and find yourself a bed that’s just right!



Coffee, alcohol, and insomnia


Some of the things you eat and drink can aggravate insomnia, with two of the worst offenders being alcohol and coffee.


Caffeine is a well-known stimulant, it’s why so many people rely on it to wake up in the morning, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that it can keep you up at night if you drink it before bedtime.


Alcohol, on the other hand, is a sedative, which should put you right to sleep. However, although alcohol can put you to sleep at first, it can actually wake you up later in the night, just what you need when you’re nursing a hangover!


Sleep disorders caused by shift work


Shift work that has you starting work early and finishing late and constantly changing when you get to bed can leave you with insomnia.


It can confuse your body clock, and when your body doesn’t know what time it is and when it needs to wake up, you can’t blame it for struggling to fall asleep at all.



Jet Lag


Any holiday goer will tell you that one of the worst parts of the overseas trip of a lifetime is the jet lag.


Your body doesn’t know whether it’s coming or going or what time zone it’s in and the result leaves you lying awake at night and dropping off in the middle of your once in a lifetime tour of the Arc Du Triomphe, and when you get home it starts all over again!


This one will pass with time, just give your body some time to adjust to hopping those time zones.


How to get to sleep


When you’re struggling with getting to sleep, you might start to feel like there’s nothing you can do to break the cycle, but you’d be wrong!


Getting those much needed 7 – 9 hours could be easier than you think, and some of the best things you can do to treat insomnia are simple things you can do at home! Let’s take a look at some home remedies for that insomnia.



Think about your sleep cycle


A huge part of getting a good night’s sleep is sticking to a sleep schedule.


This will help your body to know when you need to go to bed and when it’s time to wake up, and the more you stick to it, the easier it will be to get to sleep.


When you’re setting up your sleep schedule, start by taking an hour before bedtime to relax! Take a bath, read a book, meditate, put your phone away, turn your laptop off and chill out so you’re ready for bed.


Put your pyjamas on, and go to bed at the same time every night – yes, we mean every night!


Don’t stay up later at the weekend just because you can, just stick to your bedtime and get your butt into bed, then set your alarm to wake up at the same time every day.


Yes, you might want a lie in on a Sunday morning, but try to get up when you usually would, it will help your schedule to stick so you can get some better sleep overall.


Change your diet


Remember that caffeine and alcohol I mentioned before? Get them out of here! Or at least stay away from them for at least 6 hours before you go to sleep. This will help to prevent them keeping you up all night.


And while we’re at it, make sure you don’t eat a big meal late at night. This can also keep you staring at the ceiling and counting sheep, so if you’re planning a big dinner eat it a few hours before bedtime.



Change when you exercise


Exercising just before bedtime is another common reason why people end up tossing and turning all night long.


Hit the gym at least 4 hours before bedtime to give your body a chance to wind down and prepare for a proper night’s sleep.


You might want to drag your feet about getting your butt onto that treadmill, but get moving as early in the day as you can so you can feel the benefits of that work out and a good night’s sleep.


Change your environment

As we mentioned before, your environment can play a big part in keeping you up all night, so it’s time to shake things up!


Buy some good curtains or an eye mask and block out that pesky light, get yourself a comfortable mattress and some more blankets, or less blankets if that’s your thing, the blanket world is your oyster!


Make sure that room is as warm or as cool as you need it to be to drop off into a peaceful slumber.


While you’re at it, stick a sock in your partner’s mouth to quieten all of that noisy snoring… or just pick up some ear plugs if you’re more sympathetic to their snores than I am.


Get that sleeping environment just right and you’ll be drifting off to the land of nod in no time!



How can my doctor help me with insomnia?


Tried all of those home remedies and still can’t quite get to sleep? Your insomnia could be caused by an underlying medical condition that is trickier to deal with than your average sleepless night.


This is when you need to talk to your GP, who will be able to work out why you’re struggling to get some sleep and what you can do to make things right.


For example, if your insomnia is caused by anxiety or depression, your doctor might recommend some behavioural cognitive therapy, which will help to treat the underlying condition and help you to get back to sleep.


Sleeping pills aren’t usually prescribed by doctors any more, so don’t expect to just be given some tablets and fall asleep right away.


You need to treat the underlying cause of your insomnia, rather than just easing the symptom, and sleeping pills can have side effects of their own that could make matters worse.


If your insomnia is really bad, your doctor might suggest some sleeping pills to help you to catch up on a couple of hours sleep, but they should never be relied upon long term.


Can a pharmacist help me to get to sleep?


As we mentioned before, sleeping pills shouldn’t be used as a long-term remedy for insomnia, but they can be used for short term relief.


If your doctor recommends some sleeping pills to treat your insomnia for a few days, then they could send you to your local pharmacist where you can find some over the counter sleeping pills.


These can help you to get some sleep for a few days so you can recover from all of those sleepless nights, but again, you should never rely on this as a long-term solution and should discuss it with your doctor before picking any of these remedies up.



Now you know all you need to know to get yourself a good night’s sleep, so go and kiss those sheep goodbye because your counting days are done!


Remember, if you’re really struggling with insomnia and nothing else helps, make an appointment to see your doctor.


They’ll be able to help you to drift off into a peaceful sleep in no time! Goodnight, sleep tight, and don’t let the bed bugs bite!



Laura Henderson - Medical Content Writer
James O'Loan - CEO & Superintendent Pharmacist
James O'Loan , CEO & Superintendent Pharmacist on 22 September 2021
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