With summer well and truly here, the days are getting longer and nights shorter. It’s tempting to stay up later to enjoy the lighter evenings but getting the right amount of sleep is crucial to maintain good physical and mental health.
According to NHS choices website it affects a staggering one in three people in the UK and is particularly more common in older people. Lack of sleep can have many adverse effects on health.
Treatments for insomnia
It may surprise some (including myself) but there is little evidence supporting the use of over the counter sleeping tablets like Nytol, where the active ingredient is an antihistamine. Antihistamines are most commonly prescribed over the counter for allergies like hay fever but one of the side effects can be drowsiness. It is this side-effect that is marketed for a treatment for insomnia. However, according to NICE guidelines there is limited evidence for the use of antihistamines in short and long term insomnia.
Going to the other extreme, hypnotic drugs like benzodiazepines (Temazepam) and z-drugs (zopiclone) available on prescription show efficacy but come with impairing side-effects like day time drowsiness amongst other hazardous ones like increased chance of motor accidents and falls. Also they are only prescribed as a last resort and not recommended for long-term use as can lead to the development of tolerance, physical or behavioural dependence, adverse effects on withdrawal, rebound insomnia, and increased mortality.
What is advised?
Finding the cause
There can be many causes including sleep disorders, stress, psychiatric issues, medical problems, drug and substance misuse or medication. Finding the underlying cause can help with addressing the actual issue so an appropriate solution can be found.
A sleep diary can help identify how much someone is actually sleeping each night, and any factors that may make insomnia worse. The diary should be kept for at least 2 weeks.
Sleep hygiene aims to make people more aware of behavioural, environmental, and temporal factors that may be detrimental or beneficial to sleep.
- Ensure that waking and bedtime are fixed and avoid sleeping more in the morning even if it’s tempting after a bad night’s sleep.
- Relax before bed. We live in a digital age where we are usually on multiple electronic devices at the same time, e.g watching TV, whilst checking social media on the phone or laptop. If this causes your mind to become over-stimulated, avoid it and instead opt for taking a nice relaxing bath.
- Maintain a comfortable sleeping environment: not too hot, cold, noisy, or bright.
- Avoid napping during the day.
- Avoid caffeine, nicotine and alcohol within 6 hours of going to bed. Eliminating caffeine completely from the diet may be advisable. Instead consider trying relaxing herbal teas.
- Avoid exercise within 4 hours of bedtime
- Exercise earlier in the day (not four hours before bedtime) is beneficial
- Avoid eating a heavy meal late at night.
- Avoid watching or checking the clock throughout the night
- Only use the bedroom for sleep and sex. It’s tempting to have your phone next to your bed but it may be best to have it out of the room avoiding the temptation to check it.
Relaxation training like progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) and visualisation require no special equipment and evidence has shown it to be beneficial for aiding sleep. For more information on PMR and other relaxation tips click here
Meditation is all the rage at the moment but it actually has many health benefits. Improving quality of sleep being one. To find out the benefits of meditation and how to do a simple 10 minute breathing meditation click here.
The evidence (as long as it’s not 4 hours before bedtime) shows exercise significantly improves quality of sleep, reducing the time taken to fall to sleep, and increasing the time spent asleep. This is a great reason to start moving your body in whatever way you enjoy.
Other things that may also help….
There is some evidence that suggests magnesium supplementation improves subjective measures of insomnia. Magnesium is essential for a healthy body – a natural relaxant, it relieves muscle tension and cramping, joint stiffness and flexibility, calcium absorption and restful sleep. These are now available in novel formulations that means you don’t have to take tablets. You can simply either spray onto body in the form of a spray or put magnesium flakes into the bath which in itself is relaxing. For a fantastic article about benefits of magnesium by naturopathic nutritionist Judith Reid please click here
Lavender essential oil
Lavender essential oil is one of the most well known essential oils and has been used for its relaxing properties. There have also been some small clinical trial conducted showing its efficacy in aiding sleep. It can be used in many ways for its aromatherapy properties to be experienced, including having the oil diffused into the air in the form of a diffuser or spray. Applying it to the body in the form of a pulse point or cream via the feet which has a rich supply of blood vessels are other pampering options.
As caffeine is most definitely a no no for people experiencing poor sleep, a calming herbal tea is a relaxing alternative. There is limited evidence for sedating herbs like valerian and chamomile. They have, however, been known to be used traditionally in many cultures and throughout the ages for their soothing and calming properties for aiding sleep amongst other ailments. In my experience just the act of sipping a delicious fragrant warm drink with these herbs as an alternative to caffeine or alcohol can be relaxing in itself.
WHO technical meeting on sleep and health Bonn Germany, 22-24 January 2004
NHS choices website-http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Insomnia/Pages/Introduction.aspx
Nisha Patel is the co-founder of natural health star and is a Pharmacist with over 16 years of experience. Her main interest lies within natural preventative healthcare and her focus if often prevention rather than treatment.
To read more about Nisha click here.
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