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Getting a good night's sleep is very important to overall health. When you're asleep, your body rests and recuperates, and your brain processes the events of the day, so that you wake feeling more refreshed and relaxed. It's a myth that everyone needs eight hours' uninterrupted sleep, but several hours of deep sleep are needed each night to feel fully rested.

(Watch this BBC Earth Lab video on whether or not you are getting enough sleep)

Most people at some point in their lives will have times when they're not getting as much sleep as they need, due to insomnia, waking in the night, or bad dreams and restlessness. Your sleep patterns can be affected if you are worried about something, or have just been overdoing things.

If you haven't slept well, you may struggle to cope the next day. You may find that you feel irritable or snappy, have trouble concentrating on work, or can't face up to doing household chores or leisure activities. You might find yourself dozing off, and may not feel safe to drive or use equipment.

Not getting enough sleep for a long period of time can also lead to depression and anxiety, and even in some cases an increased risk of heart disease and other health conditions. 

What is insomnia?

Insomnia is when you struggle to go to sleep, or have problems staying asleep. Insomnia becomes more common as we get older, and affects women more than men.

Many people find they experience spells of insomnia when they are feeling particularly stressed, worried or anxious, or if they are going through a period of change or upheaval in their lives.

For some people, insomnia is caused by another health problem, and perhaps by being in pain, and some medications may also make sleeping difficult.

But for a lot of people insomnia doesn't have an obvious cause.

Suffering with insomnia can be frustrating, especially if you're not sure what's causing it. You may find yourself lying awake thinking about things, or feel as though your brain won't 'shut down' when you want to rest, or seems to be racing with ideas. If you finally do get to sleep, you may wake up not feeling refreshed or rested, and it can feel difficult to start your day.

Tips for dealing with insomnia

If you're having trouble sleeping on a regular basis, there are a few things you could try:

  • Avoid drinking caffeinated drinks, especially in the evening
  • Try to maintain a regular sleep routine - go to bed at around the same time every night
  • Avoid stimulating activities before bed (including watching TV, using your smartphone, reading and going on the computer) to give your brain time to relax
  • Make sure your bedroom is dark when you go to bed - blackout curtains or other thick curtains may help, or you could use a sleep mask to cover your eyes
  • Keep your bedroom at a comfortable temperature and well-ventilated - if it isn't too cold, open a window to let fresh air in
  • Wear ear plugs to avoid being woken up by noise
  • Over-the-counter sleeping pills can help with occasional insomnia, but they shouldn't be used for a long period as they can have side effects
  • If you're worried about your insomnia or it's causing you problems with tiredness during the day, see your GP. They may be able to prescribe medication that will help, or they may refer you to a specialist sleep clinic for further tests.

The NHS website contains lots of information on insomnia and how to deal with it.

Nightmares can often be upsetting and confusing. They can happen when you're stressed or worried about something, when you're ill or running a temperature, but often for no reason at all. Sometimes you may have runs of recurring dreams that happen several nights in a row, then disappear as quickly as they came. You might find you wake from a nightmare feeling distressed, and feeling that you haven't had a restful night's sleep.

Symptoms of 'night terrors' are waking suddenly from a nightmare in the middle of the night, thrashing around in bed, sitting upright or shouting out. You might also experience sleep paralysis, when you feel as though you are awake but unable to move. This is often accompanied by a feeling of dread or the sense that something or someone is in the room with you. It can be a very frightening experience and leave you feeling panicked and frightened. People sometimes describe the sensation of waking up 'in a cold sweat' or with their heart racing.

You might feel you don't want to tell people about your bad dreams for fear of seeming childish. Or you might be inclined to worry that your dreams are an omen of something bad that is about to happen to you in the future. However, it's important to remember that nightmares are very common and, like all dreams, they are just your unconscious brain processing the events and feelings of the day. Dreams usually fade from your memory quickly after waking, and you're unlikely to remember much detail about them.

Most people snore at some point during their sleep cycle, though many don't realise it unless they are told by someone they share a bed with, or by a carer. The noises made can range from small snuffling sounds to loud rattles and snorts. Some people even snore so loudly they wake themselves up! Whether you snore loudly can be affected by a range of factors, including your weight, your sleeping position, having a cough or cold, the shape of your nose and airways, or the size of your adenoids and tonsils (soft tissue in the back of the nose and throat).

Snoring isn't dangerous, but if you do snore and are bothered by it, there's a few things you can try:

  • Changing the number of pillows you use
  • Sleeping on your front or side rather than your back
  • Making sure your bedding and mattress are kept clean to prevent dust mites and other allergens making your snoring worse
  • Buying some snore strips, which are sticky strips that are places across the bridge of the nose to help keep the airways open.

When you're asleep, it's normal for your breathing to slow down - usually to about 10-12 breaths per minute. If you have sleep apnea, you may stop breathing in your sleep for anything from 10 seconds to a whole minute, and this can happen several times an hour throughout the night. This happens because the throat closes up during sleep, and doesn't allow air through. Sleep apnea is often accompanied by snoring with long pauses and gasps for breath. People who suffer from sleep apnea often find that they wake up still feeling very tired as they have been unable to get restful sleep. Sleep apnea is more common in people who are overweight, who have other breathing problems such as asthma, and people who have unusually large tonsils. However in many cases the cause is unknown.

Sleep apnea can cause or contribute to other health conditions, including high blood pressure and heart problems due to not enough oxygen entering the blood stream, and hormonal changes in the body due to sleep deprivation. It can also be dangerous to drive or operate machinery if you have sleep apnea as you may feel groggy or unable to concentrate.

Simple changes like altering your sleeping position can help with sleep apnea. If you are overweight, losing weight may also help to reduce or prevent sleep apnea. There are also devices you can wear in your sleep to correct the position of the jaw, and masks to improve oxygen intake. You can talk to your doctor about whether these treatments may be helpful for you.

If you are concerned about any of the conditions mentioned above, consult your GP.

The Sleep Foundation provides tips on how to sleep well, and to overcome problems with sleeping.

Good Thinking is an online wellbeing website which provides a range of resources to help Londoners improve their mental wellbeing, including improving sleep with free NHS-approved apps, articles, blogs, podcasts, self-assessments, videos and workbooks.

Last updated: 02/07/2021