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Can’t sleep? Here’s what to do about insomnia

How do I know if I have insomnia?

Perhaps you’ve had a bad night or two. You may be finding it difficult to sleep because you are stressed or ill. But does this mean you have insomnia?

WebMDdefines insomnia as “a sleep disorder that prevents people from falling and/or staying asleep.” The condition can come and go, ranging from occasional to acute (two nights a week) to chronic (at least three nights a week for more than a month).

If you have one or more of these symptoms, you may have a form of insomnia:

  • Finding it hard to fall asleep
  • Experiencing disrupted sleep
  • Not feeling rested after a night’s sleep
  • Waking up too early
  • Finding it hard to concentrate
  • Feeling tired in general
  • Feeling irritable, depressed or anxious

The impact on your health is significant. As cardiologist Morton Tavel, M.D. says, “Getting enough good-quality sleep is essential to staying healthy and aging well. A lack of sleep can have serious consequences such as a higher risk of type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and other health conditions.”

Before we talk about how to deal with insomnia, let’s look at what causes it.

Why can’t I sleep?

This is a question you may have asked yourself many times while lying wide awake in the middle of the night. Insomnia can be an immensely frustrating condition, particularly when you don’t understand why you are experiencing it. These are a few factors that may be causing it:

  • Your environment (e.g. levels of light, noise, temperature, clutter)
  • High levels of stress
  • Long work hours
  • Pain or discomfort
  • An uncomfortable or unsupportive mattress
  • Certain medications (e.g. for allergies, high blood pressure, asthma)
  • Poor diet, or consuming too many stimulants (e.g. caffeine and alcohol)
  • Lack of exercise, or exercising right before bedtime
  • Excessive screen time
  • An irregular sleep schedule
  • Lack of routine at bedtime

How do I cure it?

According to WebMD, most doctors will prescribe better sleep habits for patients with acute insomnia, or sleeping pills for short-term use. If you have chronic insomnia, your doctor will look for any health conditions that may be contributing to the problem, and will most likely prescribe behavioural therapy, such as sleep restriction therapy or relaxation methods.

Tips for overcoming insomnia without taking meds

If you’re keen to beat insomnia without the help of medication, be prepared to make some lifestyle changes. Remember, this is not an instant fix; it will take consistent effort over time. Here’s how to get started:

1. Exercise regularly

When your body gets regular aerobic exercise, you tend to sleep better.

Exercise helps you get a more restful, restorative sleep with fewer disruptions. Note that exercise is a stimulant, so you should avoid working out just before bedtime.

Aim for at least half an hour of aerobic exercise, such as jogging, cycling, swimming, or anything that increases your heart rate, early in the day every day.

2. Avoid substances that interfere with sleep

Some food and drinks have been found to aggravate insomnia, such as alcohol, sugar, spices and caffeine. Try to restrict your consumption of these to the morning only.

Many people think that because alcohol is a depressant, it will help them sleep. But in fact, it can lead to sleep disruptions, as psychoanalyst and sleep expert Jonathon Alpert explains: “It may knock you out initially, but within a few hours, as the body starts to eliminate the alcohol, it will wake you or, at best, cause a restless sleep”.

Sweet food causes a spike in blood sugar, followed by a crash that can wake you up at night. And the acid reflux often caused by spicy food can make falling asleep more difficult.

Caffeine is a known stimulant that makes it harder for your body to fall asleep. However, did you know that it’s not just in coffee, it’s also in tea, energy drinks, carbonated drinks, chocolate and some energy bars, too? Remember to check the label before your next drink or snack!

Ideally, you should try to avoid these items completely, at least for a week, to see if your sleep improves. If that’s not feasible, try avoiding them at least six hours before bedtime. You can also try not eating or drinking anything two hours before bed to reduce sleep interruptions caused by digestion problems or visits to the bathroom. Keep it up for a week to start with, and track the impact on your sleep.

3. Stick to a regular sleep schedule

It is important to go to bed at the same time every night – even on weekends – and get out of bed at the same time every morning, whether you’ve been awake for a while or not. Do this for a few months to help regulate your body’s circadian rhythms.

Be strict with yourself and follow your alarm clock, no matter how much you want to stay up a little later or sleep a little longer. It’s also helpful to inform the people you live with, so they can help you stay on track.

4. Turn off the lights

One of the culprits of disrupted sleep is light. Any light, however much or little, can prevent your brain from entering sleep mode by triggering it to stay awake.

So be sure to switch off all lights – plus gadgets such as computers, phones and televisions – before you go to sleep.

Watching TV is not a healthy way to relax because it actually stimulates your brain more than it calms it down. Turning the TV off an hour before bed can do wonders for your sleep!

5. Check your body’s alignment

If you’re prone to a lot of tossing and turning at night, it’s quite likely that your body is experiencing some level of discomfort or pain. This may be stemming from a misalignment in your spine, or an awkward sleeping position.

Bear in mind that we spend a third of our lives in bed, so correct alignment is very important for your health. A low-quality mattress that does not offer sufficient support may save you money, but it will have a direct, negative impact on your quality of sleep.

Be sure to try out your mattress before you buy it, and choose one that offers the right level of orthopaedic support. Manufacturers such as Sealy invest in research overseen by an Orthopaedic Advisory Board to develop mattresses that support correct spine alignment.

6. Find an effective way to relax

Stress has a way of creeping up on us without us noticing. It takes something like insomnia to help us realise how tightly wound we’ve become. That’s why it’s important to do something that helps you relax regularly, ideally every day before you go to bed. For example:

  • Drinking a calming herbal tea
  • Using aromatherapy oils
  • Keeping a journal to empty your mind of worries and to-do lists
  • Reading or listening to an audiobook
  • Doing relaxing yoga or stretching exercises

Make a sleep-friendly space

A noisy or cluttered room can impact your quality of sleep more than you realise. And when dealing with insomnia, you want to eliminate anything that might disrupt your sleep, no matter how insignificant it may seem. Here are some tips on how to do just that:

  • When you go to bed, switch your phone off and put it somewhere out of arm’s reach
  • Switch off all the lights and close the curtains to ensure your room is as dark as possible
  • Switch off any gadgets that make noise
  • Set the temperature so it’s not too hot or too cold
  • Clean up and tidy away any clutter, so your room is relaxing to look at
  • Ensure your alarm clock is facing away from you, as checking the time during the night can make you anxious
  • Make sure your mattress is the correct size and firmness for you

It’s worth it for good night’s sleep

Insomnia takes its toll on every area of life, but the good news is, there are things you can do to encourage a full and restful sleep. While all these things may appear daunting at first, the sooner you start, the sooner you will see a difference. Studies show that better sleep habits can contribute significantly to curing insomnia. It may take time for you to develop these habits, but remember that all your efforts will pay off in the end. Any and every change you make is worth it, for the sake of a good night’s sleep.

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