Did you know that about one in 10 people have insomnia? If you’re one of those people who find it difficult to get to sleep, wake up during the night (and then have trouble going back to sleep), or wake up too early – or a combination of all three – you’ll know what a frustrating, exhausting business insomnia can be.
Being overtired and not functioning to your best ability can also be dangerous – research has shown that severe sleep deprivation can affect your driving skills as much as alcohol.
Here, we look at the common symptoms of insomnia, what might be causing it, and what you can do to alleviate it. Some of those old wives’ tales do work!
Symptoms and causes
Insomnia is more common in women and people in the 60-plus age bracket. It can lead to a variety of symptoms during the day, including:
- worrying about sleeping
- feeling too tired to carry out normal activities
- poor memory and concentration
- irritation, moodiness and hyperactivity
- reduced energy and motivation
- feeling sleepy at inopportune moments
And just as there are many different symptoms, there are also many causes – or maybe no specific cause at all (‘primary insomnia’). Underlying conditions such as anxiety and depression, sleep disorders such as sleep apnoea or snoring, and medical issues (anything causing pain, plus hormonal changes, breathing difficulties, and digestive and urinary problems) are known as ‘secondary insomnia’. It’s important to discuss with your doctor any underlying medical issues that might be causing insomnia, to find the most effective solutions.
What is the circadian rhythm and why does it affect sleep?
According to the US Sleep Foundation, the circadian rhythm helps regulate body temperature, eating and digestion, and hormonal activity. Its ‘master clock’ in the brain’s hypothalamus resets every 24 hours, based on light and darkness cycles. Circadian rhythm disorders affect our sleep cycle (think of jet lag as a mild form). Older people are at higher risk of these disorders because the internal mechanisms that regulate circadian rhythm deteriorate with age.
There are several steps you can take to manage insomnia. Implementing regular pre-bedtime routines, ensuring your bedroom is the right temperature and improving lifestyle factors can all help. For example:
- Allow time to relax before you go to bed. Breathing exercises, guided relaxation and meditation can quieten your mind and body – check out websites such as Calm.com.
- Experts agree that the best room temperature for a good night's sleep is between 18 and 20 degrees Celcius. Your circadian rhythm makes your body temperature drop naturally in the evening; if you're too hot, your body is forced to work harder and exert energy by sweating. This keeps the body too alert to be able to sleep deeply enough to enter REM sleep, the stage of sleep that is most restorative and allows the brain to repair.
- Also relating to your circadian rhythm, you should sleep in a darkened room, and it can help if you dim other lights around the house before you go to bed.
- Avoid looking at device screens for an hour before bedtime and ban them from your bedroom if possible. Blue light from televisions, computer screens, phones and tablets are thought to suppress melatonin levels and delay sleepiness.
- Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day. Older adults need between seven and nine hours sleep for optimum health.
- Exercise regularly, but not in the evening, and avoid daytime naps.
- Cut out or reduce your intake of caffeine, nicotine and alcohol, especially in the evening.
Some old-fashioned remedies have a scientific basis, and work for many people. Here are a few to try:
- Counting sheep: It’s not about the sheep – rather, focusing on repetitive mental images can distract your brain from anxious thoughts that can keep you awake.
- Have a warm bath before bed: The rapid cooling of your body after a bath helps synch with your natural circadian rhythm.
- Essential oils: ‘Sleep Doctor’ Michael Breus is one of many experts who recommends using lavender as a sleep aid, either rubbing the essential oil into your temples or spraying it on your pillow.
- Sleeping tablets: Dr Breus's website offers a comprehensive list of natural sleep aids, including melatonin and CBD, or cannabidiol. Just because they are ‘natural’ does not mean they are harmless and if you’re taking other medication, you should discuss their use with your doctor. You also need a prescription for high-dose melatonin and CBD in Australia.
There’s an app for that
Sleep apps for smartphones and watches collect data about your sleep patterns to track and (hopefully) change them, and some offer soothing music and mental wellness features. Check out tom's guide for reviews of the latest sleep apps.
For more information about insomnia, see sleephealthfoundation.org.au, and check out the Health & Wellbeing section at downsizing.com.au for more great advice.