Most men and women experience poor sleep or disturbed sleep in their life time. About one third of adults do not get as much sleep as they would like. Poor sleep might mean you have trouble trying to fall asleep, waking up too early, waking up for long periods in the night or not feeling refreshed after a night’s sleep. There can be many different causes that influence the way we sleep. Also called insomnia, poor sleep can affect your physical and mental health in many ways. Lack of sleep can cause you to have trouble concentrating during the day, make you feel tired and irritable, or give you frequent headaches or dizziness.
What is a normal amount of sleep?
Different people need different amounts of sleep. Some people function well and are not tired during the day with just 3-4 hours of sleep a night but this isn’t advisable for everyone! Most people need 7-8 hours per night for optimal health. However, as you become older, it is normal to sleep less. It can take anywhere between 5 to 30mins to fall asleep but a normal time period is considered to be about 5-10 minutes. Any longer than this is too long and is a sign that your nervous system is not switching off effectively at night.
What are the causes of poor sleep?
There are many possible reasons for poor sleep, including your sleeping habits, what you are doing in the hours before bed, stress, anxiety and lifestyle choices.
Causes of poor sleep may include:
- Too much stimulation before bedtime (such as watching television, playing video games, or exercising)
- Noise disturbances
- Sleeping too much during the day or sleeping in too long in the morning
- Frequent urination
- Physical pain
- Lack of physical activity
- Stress, worry, depression, anxiety
- Work schedules/shift workers
- Prescription medications, such as thyroid medications and drugs containing ephedrine or phenylpropanolamine
- Jet lag
In some people, poor sleep/insomnia is caused by a sleep disorder. Sleep apnea is a disorder in which a blockage in your upper airways creates pauses in your breathing throughout the night, causing you to wake up frequently with a choking sound. Waking with headaches in the morning is common.
Another sleep disorder called Restless Leg Syndrome can also trigger sleeping difficulty. This condition causes uncomfortable sensations in your legs, such as tingling or aching. These sensations make your legs move constantly when resting, which can interrupt your sleep.
Nutritional approach to improving sleep
Luckily, there are many nutritional and lifestyle strategies you can adopt to aid your sleep! This is a topic I discuss with every patient as a good night’s sleep is so important for your health and wellbeing. Many techniques involve sleep ‘hygiene’ or your habits around sleep and bedtime. We can also use some dietary techniques and nutritional supplementation to set a healthy sleep cycle.
- Sleep hygiene- This means habits that help you have a good night’s sleep. This is the most important area to start with in getting the correct sleep routine. This includes a proper bed time of no later than 10pm and not sleeping in too late (even if it is tempting!) Aiming between 7-8 hours’ sleep is best each night and this time needs to be prioritised.
- Reduce stimulation before bed- try not to play video games, watch television or be in bright light for 60-90 minutes before bed time. These will increase stimulation in the brain and may affect your sleep.
- Reduce caffeine – do not have any food, medicines, or drinks that contain caffeine or other stimulants for six hours before bedtime. It has been shown that cutting out caffeine completely through the day can help.
- Stress and anxiety- By reducing these and improving the body’s resilience to stress through nutritional supplementation, your sleep and energy will improve.
- Alcohol and smoking- cut down on these, even though alcohol can induce sleep, it reduces REM sleep which can cause poor concentration the next day.
- Exercise- Do not attempt any vigorous exercise within four hours of bedtime, but exercising earlier in the day is helpful in wearing you out and using up physical energy.
- Bedroom setup- should be a quiet and relaxing place to sleep with the right temperature (not too hot or cold). By using ear plugs or an eye mask it can help to minimise noise and light. Consider changing your bed if it is old or not comfortable and hide your alarm clock under your bed. Many people will clock watch and this does not help you to get off to sleep.
- Relaxation- This could include meditation or try having a warm bath before bed,
- Review medications- Thyroid preparations, oral contraceptives and beta blockers can interfere with sleep.
- Nutrition- There possibly could be nutritional deficiencies or food sensitivities that may need addressing and these can affect your energy levels as well as sleep.