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Sleeping well


Expert reviewer Ana Noia, Senior Clinical Physiologist in Neurophysiology and Sleep, Bupa Cromwell Hospital
Next review due September 2021

Sleep is really important to your health, both physically and mentally. However, sleeping well can sometimes be a challenge. If you miss out on a night or two’s sleep, it isn’t harmful. But if your sleepless nights go on for longer, it can really take its toll, and may suggest you have insomnia. There are some simple things you can try to help you get a good night’s sleep, so don’t put up with endless restless nights.


An image showing a person and a dog asleep

Why is sleep important?

A lack of sleep can cause a range of physical problems. You’re more likely to get high blood pressure, diabetes and be overweight, for example.

When you’re struggling to sleep it can affect your emotional wellbeing too. One reason why people often find they can’t sleep is because they’re worrying about things that are going on in their life. Frustratingly, this then turns into worry and anxiety about the fact that they can’t get to sleep and the cycle can go on and on.

If you find that you’re sleepy during the day, it’s important not to do activities that may put you or others in danger if you’re tired. This can include driving, operating machinery or having to make big decisions at work or home.

How much sleep do I need?

How much sleep you need can vary between people. There isn’t really a strictly ‘normal’ amount. Some people can get by with just a few hours sleep a night, while others need a good eight hours or more. How much sleep you need also tends to get lower with age. In general:

  • babies need around 12 to 16 hours sleep each day
  • older children need about nine to 12 hours a night
  • adults need about seven to nine hours sleep each night


What’s keeping you up at night?

One in three Brits are suffering from poor sleep. Take a look over our tips in The Sleep Series to help make sure you’re getting the right amount of sleep each night.


Learn more



Self-help

If you’re having trouble sleeping, there are some things you can do to give you the best chance of sleeping well. Have a think about how and where you sleep and your sleeping habits.

Bedroom environment

First, take a look at your bedroom. Check if it’s set up to give you the best chance of a good night’s sleep.

You need to ensure that your bedroom is comfortable. Having a bedroom that’s too hot or too cold can affect your sleep. Manage your heating and layer your bedding to find the right temperature for you. Noise is another thing to consider. A variety of noise – from street sounds and wildlife to a snoring partner – can wake you in the night. Earplugs may help if your partner’s snoring is the cause of your troubles.

Excess light can also affect your sleep so take steps to control it. You might need thicker curtains or blackout blinds if you’re blasted with sunlight in the morning, particularly in the summer time. Or try an eye mask.

Create a sleep zone

If you work, eat or watch TV in your bedroom, it can be hard to switch off and go to sleep. The light and stimulation from electronic devices can activate parts of your brain and keep you awake. If you have trouble sleeping, it’s even more important not to use electronic devices in the run up to bedtime.

Only use your bedroom for sleep, or to have sex.

Mattress

A mattress that’s too firm or too soft won’t support you properly and your back or hips may suffer. Aim to replace your mattress every 10 years to get the best support and comfort.

Relaxing

If your mind won’t quieten to let you sleep, a simple way to combat this is to keep a notebook by your bed. If you’re having difficulty dropping off to sleep or you wake up in the night, write down your worries or the things you’re thinking about. This will help to organise your thoughts, rather than going over them in your head.

You might find that practising relaxation techniques before going to bed can distract you from your day and make you feel calm before rest. Try reading, or listening to some relaxing music.

If you really can’t sleep, don’t lie there worrying about it. If you don’t fall asleep within 20 minutes, get up and do something relaxing. Try reading, or listening to some relaxing music or a podcast on guided meditation.

Eat right and get active

What you eat and drink, and when, will have an impact on your energy levels.

  • Caffeine. Drinking tea, coffee or energy drinks in the hours leading up to going to bed may prevent you from dropping off because caffeine is a stimulant. Steer clear of these drinks by mid-afternoon. In the evening, choose to have a caffeine-free herbal tea or a warm, milky drink instead.
  • Alcohol. You might think that a glass of wine in the evening will help you nod off. In reality, it can actually interfere with your sleep and will most likely cause you to wake up in the night. If you have trouble sleeping, steer clear of alcohol for at least six hours before you go to bed.
  • Heavy meals. If you eat these too late at night, they can also affect how well you sleep. Eat early in the evening rather than late.

Regular exercise is a great way to help you sleep better. It helps relieve stress and anxiety that can disrupt your sleep. Try exercising during the day or early evening. If you do intense exercise too close to bedtime, you may feel overly energised and have trouble getting to sleep.

Get into a routine

Our bodies can be real sticklers for routine. Try to stick to the following.

  • Go to bed and get up at about the same times each day. Although it’s tempting, having a lie-in after a late night will only make it harder to get off to sleep the next night. This is because it resets your sleep cycle and decreases the need to sleep.
  • Try not to nap during the day. But if you really feel you have to, keep it short and don’t have a nap after 3pm.
  • Establish a regular bedtime routine – this is just as important for adults as children. Take some time out to relax and wind down before you go to bed. Have a soothing bath, sit in a quiet place or read a book for at least half an hour before you go to sleep.

Talking treatments

There are a number of talking treatments that can help you to work on sleeping better. Here are some examples.

  • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). This type of talking therapy works on changing unhelpful ways of thinking that can make you more anxious, and stop you from sleeping.
  • Sleep restriction. This treatment, which is part of CBT, helps you to go to bed later by limiting the time you spend in bed. Instead of you lying for long periods awake, it restricts the time you spend in bed and hopefully make you sleep quicker and soundly.
  • Progressive muscle relaxation. This is a relaxation therapy, which involves tensing and then releasing your muscles, one by one.

When to seek help

If a bad night’s sleep becomes a regular occurrence and it’s affecting your quality of life, see your GP. They’ll discuss your sleeping habits with you and give you advice and support. They might even refer you to see a sleep specialist.

Frequently asked questions

  • It’s best to try other treatments before you resort to sleeping pills. Sleeping pills don't work for very long, and can make you tired and moody the next day. They can also become addictive – the longer you take sleeping tablets, the more likely you are to become dependent on them. But if you’re really struggling to sleep and want to try sleeping pills, just use them for a short time.

    As well as prescription sleeping pills, you can buy over-the-counter sleep medicines from a pharmacy. They often contain antihistamine, which is in hay fever medicines. While they can help you to sleep, they can make you sleepy well into the next morning so don't drive, for example, the next day. As with prescription sleeping pills, it’s best not to take these for a long time.

    There are also herbal medicines for sleep, which usually contain a herb called Valerian. It seems to work best if you take it every night for at least two to three weeks. Again, you might well feel drowsy the following morning.

    If you’re considering taking medicines to help with sleep, have a chat with your pharmacist first.


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Related information

Tools and calculators

    • Sleeping well. Royal College of Psychiatrists. www.rcpsych.ac.uk, updated September 2015
    • Insomnia. PatientPlus. www.patient.info/patientplus, last checked 22 July 2014
    • Insomnia. Medscape. emedicine.medscape.com, updated 27 November 2017
    • Paruthi S, Brooks LI, D'Ambrosio C, et al. Recommended amount of sleep for pediatric populations: a consensus statement of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. J Clin Sleep Med 2016; 12(6):785–86. doi: 10.5664/jcsm.5866
    • Watson NF, Badr MS, Belenky G, et al. Recommended amount of sleep for a healthy adult: a joint consensus statement of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and Sleep Research Society. Sleep 2015; 38(6):843–44. doi: 10.5665/sleep.4716
    • Insomnia. BMJ Best Practice. bestpractice.bmj.com, last updated April 2018
    • Snoring. PatientPlus. www.patient.info/patientplus, last checked 15 September 2014
    • Carter B, Rees P, Hale L, et al. A meta-analysis of the effect of media devices on sleep outcomes. JAMA Pediatr 2016; 170(12):1202–8. doi: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2016.2341
    • Feeling stressed. Royal College of Psychiatrists. www.rcpsych.ac.uk, published June 2015
    • Generalized anxiety disorder. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries. cks.nice.org.uk, last revised October 2017

  • Reviewed by Rachael Mayfield-Blake, Freelance Health Editor, September 2018.
    Expert reviewer: Ana Noia, Senior Clinical Physiologist in Neurophysiology and Sleep, Bupa Cromwell Hospital
    Next review due September 2021



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