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Insomnia – persistent and troublesome sleeplessness – affects between 10% and 40% of people in the Western world[i], and the number seems to be growing. It is particularly prevalent in certain groups of people: the very young and the very old, those with a history of depression and some other mental illnesses, as well as shift workers. Humans are designed to sleep at night and be awake through the day – we call this our diurnal rhythm. Anything that affects this can seriously affect our health.
Certain medications can alter sleep patterns, contributing to sleepless nights, and some medical conditions can make it worse. Being unwell can mean you’re less able to get the fresh air and exercise that can help maintain a healthy daily rhythm. Pain, nausea, breathing difficulties, all the symptoms of illness – serious or not – can cause insomnia.
Insomnia associated with illness is complex – a serious illness can cause anxiety and low mood. Feelings of fear, helplessness, and sadness can become intense and seem insurmountable in the middle of a sleepless night. Anyone who’s experienced one of those wakeful, anxious nights – and that’s an astounding number of us, around the world – will understand that long, dark night of the soul. Holistic health providers like the Budwig Center recognize the impact of sleep on health and take sleep disorders very seriously when helping their patients.
Some of the effects of a poor night’s sleep are clear and immediate: being tired can lead to mistakes and accidents. Daytime sleepiness can be particularly significant in some lines of work when caring for family, and even just going about your everyday life. Fatigue is one of the top causes of road traffic accidents worldwide, and those accidents caused by driver fatigue are likely to be more serious.[ii]
In the short term, insomnia is known to cause elevated blood pressure, increased risk of accidents, and to begin to have an impact on mental health. Longer-term, persistent sleepless nights increase our risk of cardiovascular disease[iii], our immune system, and, again, our mental health.
Simple measures can make a huge improvement in sleep patterns for many people. A few tips for sleep hygiene include:
Routine, routine, routine: sticking to regular bedtimes – and getting up around the same time every day – can help you get a reasonable amount of sleep. It can be very tempting, after a late or nearly sleepless night, to lie in. There’s good evidence, though, that getting up at a good, regular time can reduce insomnia in the longer term. This also means avoiding napping throughout the day.
Mindfulness: something of a buzzword in recent years, but with good reason. Mindfulness is just a term to describe a group of techniques that encourage people to be more aware of, and in tune with, their bodies. Actively relaxing sounds like a contradiction but taking the time and making the effort to wind down properly at bedtime just makes sense. Using simple meditation techniques, focusing on breathing patterns and accepting your worries head-on can really help[iv].
Tired days after sleepless nights can have you reaching for another cup of coffee, but caffeine can last a long time in your system. Depending on the person, the effects of a cup of coffee can last around six hours, sometimes more. Being in tune with your body might help you to identify the effect that caffeine has on you as an individual and manage the timing of your intake. Alcohol, tobacco, and other stimulants can also lead to sleepless nights.
A calm, restful environment can make all the difference. If you have space, having a bedroom dedicated entirely to restfulness and sleep is ideal. Working in your bedroom can mean you unconsciously link that room to staying alert, and that’s bound to have an impact on your ability to easily fall asleep. Keep your room comfortably cool, dark and quiet for a good night.
Doing little – or a lot – of healthy exercise can help improve sleeping patterns. Allowing for restrictions caused by illness or disability, any exercise or movement can help. Even just getting outside can help improve sleeping patterns.
Light plays an important part in the body’s natural sleeping patterns, and looking at the light of an electronic device late at night can severely affect your ability to fall asleep. There are particular links between the unnatural ‘blue’ light of smartphone, tablet or computer screens and problematic wakefulness. Specially designed ebook reader devices are usually created with this in mind and are less likely to impact on sleep, but it might still be a good idea to keep them out of the bedroom – see how they affect you individually.
Some herbal teas, such as chamomile or specially designed night time tea blends have been helping people sleep since time immemorial. Other natural remedies include tart cherries, which contain a natural form of melatonin that can improve sleep duration and quality, and valerian. Some essential oils, such as lavender, have proven effects in combating sleeplessness.
The benefits of regular bedtimes are compelling, but a pragmatic approach to this is important; if you’re still lying awake in bed hours later, the best thing to do might be to get up and stop trying. Lying in the dark worrying about being unable to sleep won’t help, so on those really bad nights try moving to a different room, having a cup of herbal tea, and reading a book for a while.
If insomnia is having a serious impact on your life, it’s wise to see a doctor or other specialist. The team at the Budwig Center has years of experience working with people suffering from insomnia, particularly the sleeplessness associated with serious illness. Our advisors are on hand to help with your symptoms and troubles, and our aim is to treat you, body and mind, to improve health and fight disease.
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