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Insomnia: dreamy ways to nod off

I tried to empty my mind. Did deep breathing. Every night it was the same. Hello darkness, my old friend

May 13, 2013 | By:

New research has warned that cutting sleep has serious health risks. But if you're struggling to get any, there are lots of things you can do about it, reports Daniela Soave - and she's tried most of them

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I can’t get no sleep: another interminable night. Photo by Sarah R-Flickr

I was having trouble sleeping and it had been going on for months. I had no problem dropping off, but exactly half an hour after I’d turned off the light I would be wide awake, mind in overdrive, full of energy and feeling frantic as the minutes turned into hours and the birds burst into dawn-song.

“Switch to decaf,” said one friend. “Move the TV out of the bedroom,” said another.

“Get plenty of fresh air,” said a third. “And lay off wine with your dinner. That’s not helping.”

All sound advice, but none of it made the slightest bit of difference. I counted sheep. I tried to empty my mind. Did deep breathing. Every night it was the same. Hello darkness, my old friend.

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I came to dread sleep, or the lack of it. Every night I would lie awake for hours, nodding off for perhaps 90 minutes before the alarm went off. I got through my day in a daze. My brain felt like damp fog. I was convinced I would walk in front of a bus, crash my car, or commit some dreadful faux pas at work.

Eventually I went to my GP, who prescribed a very short course of Temazepam to break the cycle of sleeplessness. On the first night I took a tab with trepidation, fearful it would make me even more of a zombie than usual. I needn’t have worried. As usual, I was awake within 30 minutes.

I consulted my cousin, a doctor. “Don’t worry,” he said. “You could take two and it wouldn’t harm you.”

So I did, and I still woke up half an hour later. These are the pills that Sean Ryder used to sing about? He must have been a lightweight.

I did some research and discovered that age has a lot to do with it. We 50-somethings need as much sleep as people in their twenties, but the bad news is that we are presented with more obstacles as we get older. We spend less time in the deep stages of sleep. We become tired earlier in the evening and wake up earlier in the morning. Men are plagued with bladder problems, women the menopause.

Then, apparently, there’s Restless Legs Syndrome, Periodic Limb Movement Disorder and Sleep Apnoea. More than 50 per cent of people over 50 suffer from insomnia. That’s a lot of people missing a good night’s sleep.

What is sleep?

What comprises this holy grail, sleep? A good night’s sleep is divided into three parts:

  • Quiet sleep, which has four deepening stages.
  • Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, when the brain is very active (most dreaming occurs during this stage).
  • Brief intervals of wakefulness lasting approximately two minutes.

In a good night’s sleep, four or five periods of quiet sleep alternate with the same number of REM sleeps.

Sleep restores both mental and physical energy, and during sleep the growth hormone that helps rebuild tissues and muscles is secreted. Lack of sleep on a regular basis leads to poor concentration, depression and irritability.

Short-term insomnia lasts between one and four weeks. If it persists, the sleep pattern is more difficult to reset. Common causes of insomnia include noise, depression, shift work, alcohol and caffeine consumption, pain and, unfortunately, worrying about not getting to sleep.

Sleep hygiene is the term given to good sleep habits. A lot of it is common sense, but some of the tips I came across I would never have thought of. And amazingly, the advice worked a gazillion times better than the Temazepam. I don’t sleep well every night, but nor do I get so wound up when I’m in staring at the ceiling in the dark.

The common sense cures for insomnia

Keep your bedroom dark and quiet. If you need to, use thick curtains or an eye mask, and good insulation or earplugs.

Follow a set routine and go to sleep at the same time every night. Get up at the same time every day, seven days a week.

Don’t watch television in your bedroom, or use your bedroom as an office. Avoid mental stimulation for the last 90 minutes before bedtime.

Have a warm bath and a milky drink before bed. Avoid alcohol, tea, coffee and all other stimulants.

Replace your bed if it is old. Ditto pillows  and bedding.

Ensure there is a good flow of fresh air. If you can’t leave a window open, keep the bedroom door ajar.

Switch off the light as soon as you get into bed.

Keep your bedroom neither too cold nor too hot.

If you are still awake after half an hour, get up and go into another room. Only go back to bed when you are sleepy. Do this as often as required until you are asleep.

If the problem persists, try Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

This article was updated on 13 May 2014