Keeping insomnia at bay

Keeping insomnia at bay
The warm weather will make sleeping more difficult for many of us, but for some, it’s a problem all year round, writes Jason Osborne

Recent conversations with some family and friends have made me very grateful for the ease with which I sleep. I’ve heard many reports of people struggling to get comfortable and drift off due to the warmer weather, but I’m also aware that there is a large number of people who find it difficult to enter sleep’s comforting embrace all year round.

A couple of times during college, I discovered with horror the sun coming up behind my curtains as I crammed last minute essays. The despair was drawn from the fact that I knew the rest of the day was going to be severely affected for the worse due to my lack of sleep. Even today, a few later-than-usual nights in a row are enough to throw me off my stride. I can’t imagine what it’s like to suffer from a sleep issue long-term.

However, we ought to thank God yet again for the advances we’ve made in many areas of science, technology and medicine. There are few conditions can’t be helped, and difficulty with sleeping is rarely one of them. If the warm weather, stress, or a more deeply rooted mental or physical ailment is causing you insomnia, there are many ways to address the issue – foremost among them visiting a doctor if needs be.

What is insomnia?

Insomnia means you have an ongoing problem sleeping, according to the HSE, who also say that it usually gets better if you change your sleeping habits.

You have insomnia if you regularly:

  • Find it difficult to go to sleep.
  • Wake up many times during the night.
  • Lie awake at night.
  • Wake up early and can’t get back to sleep.
  • Have difficulty napping.
  • Are affected by tiredness throughout the day; whether irritableness or difficulty concentrating.


In some instances, these symptoms may persist for months or years. The diagnosis of insomnia may include the need for a physical exam, or simply a review of sleep habits. A physical exam can be required to look for medical problems that may be related to, and causing, the insomnia. On occasion, a blood test may be done to check for thyroid problems or other conditions that may be associated with poor sleep.

A review of sleeping habits is more likely the path to be taken, as this can help to identify patterns of behaviour that contribute to sleeping difficulties. In the rarest of cases, a “sleep study” (also known as a polysomnogram test) is conducted, which sees you spending a night at a sleep centre, with tests done to monitor and record a variety of body activities while you sleep, such as brain waves, breathing, heart rate, eye and body movements.

Risk factors for insomnia

While insomnia may arise from an underlying problem, some people are more susceptible to insomnia symptoms based on certain risk factors. These include:

  • Age: Insomnia can be developed and experienced at any age, but your risk of insomnia generally increases as you get older.
  • Sex: Insomnia is more common for women than for men. In particular, the hormonal changes a woman undergoes during pregnancy can result in disrupted sleep and sleeping problems.
  • Family history: It appears as though insomnia symptoms can be genetically inherited, as can your likelihood of being a light or heavy sleeper.
  • Lifestyle factors: A range of lifestyle factors can increase your risk of suffering sleeping problems, including jobs with unorthodox hours, a lack of exercise, or consumption of caffeine, tobacco and alcohol.
  • Bedroom environment: You sleep best in a bedroom that is quiet and, come bedtime, relatively light-free. As mentioned above, a balanced temperature is generally important as well – neither too hot nor too cold – as well as a comfortable bed.
  • Stress: An excessive level of stress can seriously disrupt sleep, whether the source of that stress is work or school, personal difficulties, or anything else, undue stress can impact sleep onset, duration and quality.


How much sleep do we need?

With everyone needing different amounts of sleep, it might be difficult to tell whether you’ve departed from the baseline in terms of how much you’re getting. In general, though, adults need anywhere between seven to nine hours of sleep, children somewhere between nine and thirteen hours (depending on their age and stage of development). Toddlers and babies need between twelve and seventeen hours.

How you can improve your sleep habits yourself

Insomnia is generally set right by a change in your sleeping habits. As so many of us do these days, watching TV or using a laptop, smartphone or tablet right before going to bed can result in a poor sleep. Smoking, drinking alcohol, tea or coffee should also be avoided at least six hours before going to sleep, if you’re looking to maximise your chances of getting a good night’s sleep.

Other factors that contribute towards a restless night are:

  • Eating a big meal late at night.
  • Exercising close to bedtime.
  • Napping excessively during the day.
  • Sleeping in after a previous bad night’s sleep.


Better ways to prepare yourself for sleep include:

  • Striving to set a stable sleep-pattern, including going to bed and waking up at the same time every day.
  • Relaxing properly for at least one hour before sleeping. Good ways to do this include reading, taking a bath, or for a Catholic, praying.
  • Only go to bed when you’re feeling tired.
  • Make sure your bedroom environment is suitably comfortable, with an appropriate mattress, pillows and covers, as well as a quiet, light-free environment as mentioned above.
  • Try to get into a regular exercise habit.


Other sources of relief

Herbal remedies are available from pharmacies, but they’re rarely successful in ‘curing’ insomnia, and they often come with side effects. If they are sought and used however, beware of drowsiness the following day, and try not to drive during the same period. Always receive advice from either a pharmacist or GP before taking anything you’re unsure of.

GPs are also to be considered if none of the above works. They will often try to get to the source of the insomnia, rather than just covering over the issue with sleeping pills (which are rarely prescribed anymore due to increased risk of dependency, hip fractures and dementia).

Instead, they are more likely to refer you to a therapist for cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), which can help change the thoughts and behaviours that keep you from much-needed sleep, poor sleep often being connected to anxiety, panic and low mood.