Difficulty sleeping (insomnia) is not a disease. However, it may be a symptom of other problems such as stress, depression, anxiety, pain or prostate problems. Alternatively, it may be a temporary problem of unknown cause. While sleeping difficulty is usually temporary, it may sometimes become chronic.
There is no ideal amount of sleep. Some people need very little sleep and still function well during the day, while others need a lot more sleep. As we get older we generally require less sleep. Elderly people often have no problem getting to sleep, but wake after a few hours. Possible reasons for sleeplessness may include pain, getting up to go to the toilet, going to bed too early, breathing difficulties or snoring.
Many people who have a bad snoring problem may have sleep apnoea, a condition where they stop breathing for a very short time every few minutes during sleep due to their airway being blocked by their tongue and throat. Their brain constantly wakes them to start breathing again, but they are unaware of the constant sleep/wake pattern during the night. Such people may wake up feeling tired and remain sleepy during the day. This problem is common in overweight males.
What can you do to help?
You can help get a better night’s sleep by:
- avoiding beverages that contain caffeine such as tea and coffee;
- avoiding other stimulants such as alcohol and nicotine late in the evening (excess alcohol may appear to help people get to sleep initially, but may cause waking after a few hours);
- avoiding meals or large snacks just before going to bed;
- following a regular routine by going to bed and getting up at the same time each day;
- keeping your bed just for sleeping — don't watch television in bed;
- not going to bed too early unless you need to wake up very early;
- not taking naps during the day or, if you do take a nap, keep it short (about 15 minutes), or go to bed much later;
- exercising during the day or late afternoon and relaxing before going to bed; and
- practising relaxation techniques.
Also, if you are awake, try not to ‘watch the clock’ in the small hours and don’t lie in bed tossing and turning — if you’re not asleep in 15 minutes try going to another room and doing something relaxing.
When should you seek medical advice?
You should seek medical advice if:
- insomnia has been long-standing (months);
- you are excessively sleepy during the day (e.g. you can't stay awake after lunch or while driving);
- lack of sleep is interfering with your ability to function normally during the day;
- you have early morning waking, mood changes or feel under stress;
- you wake often to go to the toilet (for men, this may be a sign of prostate problems);
- you are being woken by pain;
- you are taking prescription medicines that are interfering with your sleep; or
- you have untreated respiratory, cardiovascular or gastrointestinal disease symptoms.