Sleeping too little now and then is not dangerous. A “sleep debt” can be made up for with a nap or by sleeping well the next night. But if you rarely or never wake up rested, both your physical and your mental health are negatively affected. This text will go through what can cause your sleep problems and what you can do about them.
Are there tests to measure sleep problems?
Physicians and psychologists can use scientifically designed questionnaires (such as the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index, PSQI) when treating patients to measure sleep quality and diagnose sleep problems.
You can find PSQI and other self-assessment scales online – but you do not need any tests to determine if you are sleeping badly, just as you do not need apps that measure how much you move in bed. Answering the question “Do I usually wake up rested enough to feel and function OK during the day?” is enough. If the answer is no, you probably have sleep problems. In that case, you should first and foremost try to improve your sleeping routine. If nothing works, you can contact your GP or a psychologist on Mindler to get professional help. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) offers practical tools to start improving your sleep here and now.
Sleep problems and stress
It goes without saying that too much stress adversely affects sleep. But temporary stress during the day is nothing to worry about, if you just take it easy in the evening and have time to unwind properly. The important thing is that there are clear contrasts and boundaries between different areas of life.
When you work, you should work with full concentration, and when you are free, you should relax properly. Mindfulness – conscious presence – can be a good tool to reinforce this by becoming more present in the present. Letting work interfere in your free time is one of the biggest sources of chronic (uninterrupted) stress, and it can impair your sleep.
Not having a job, or being understimulated in any other way, is also stressful. Depressed people have high levels of stress hormones, even if they can only lie on the couch. This also illustrates that it is important to find a natural rhythm between activity and rest and not to exaggerate in any direction.
Pregnant with sleep problems?
During the last three months of pregnancy, sleep problems are common. This can be due to various factors, such as the child becoming active and kicking at night. It can also be difficult to lie down comfortably during this period.
Sleep problems during menopause
Menopause can also interfere with the sleep of many women. It is usually due to a change in hormone balance in the body. In the past, doctors have treated the problem by prescribing hormones (estrogen and progesterone) as medicines. Getting into menopause marks the beginning of a new phase in life. It can arouse emotions and existential thoughts that in themselves can affect well-being and sleep. If you feel that your problems have more to do with the psyche than with the body and the hormones, it may be helpful to talk to a psychologist.
Byths and truths – What is true and what is false about sleep disorders?
Myth: I have to sleep to catch up on the sleep I lost last night!
Truth: No, you do not have to. You will compensate for the fatigue by sleeping deeper the next night. This also refutes the claim that you can not make up for lost sleep.
Myth: I only slept six hours last night, it’s way too little!
Truth: It is not at all certain that it is too little. Many people only sleep six hours a night and you too can probably do pretty well on this.
Myth: Tonight I barely slept at all, I just twisted and turned.
Truth: That’s what you remember, but since we do not remember our sleeping moments, it is difficult to judge whether we slept or not. We normally wake up 5-15 times a night and if we have a shallow sleep it can feel like we have not slept.
Myth: I was super tired when I woke up this morning, I probably did not sleep enough.
Truth: You were probably awakened when you were in your deep sleep, which made you feel very groggy. You may not need to sleep more.
Myth: I will be completely devastated tomorrow and get nothing done!
Truth: That is not true, we can often perform better than we think even if we slept poorly for a couple of nights.
Tips for improving sleep
Avoid strong artificial light at least one hour before bedtime. The best are candles and real bonfires. The worst are fluorescents and screens (TV, computer, mobile phones and tablets).
Screens emit a blue glow similar to sunlight. It tricks the brain into thinking that it is the middle of the day, and then it does not produce melatonin (a hormone that makes us sleepy).
There are apps that block the blue light,, but the actual tinkering with the phone, especially social media and image-based services, releases dopamine, which makes you awake and alert.
A scientific study let a group of people with sleep problems camp in the woods for a couple of weeks without artificial light. After a few days, all participants’ sleep problems had disappeared. All they needed was natural daylight and night darkness.
Be outdoors during the day
Try to get as much daylight as possible, preferably during the first half of the day. If it is not feasible due to work or other commitments, you may be able to take a short walk at lunch.
Remember that our bodies have been programmed to wake up from the sun rising, stay in daylight all day and then go to bed or at least really unwind when the sun goes down. The more we can mimic that pattern, the greater the chance of good sleep.
Use the bedroom only for sleep
If possible, do nothing in your bedroom other than sleep and rest.
If you e.g. have a work corner with a computer in the bedroom, or usually lie in bed and play video games, the brain associates the place with invigorating activities. Then it becomes more difficult to sleep.
Instead, try to build habits that allow you to just associate the bed with relaxation and sleep.
Do not use electronics in the bedroom. If you must have an alarm clock, place it so that you do not see it from your sleeping area.
If you wake up at night and think of things you need to remember, then write them down on a piece of paper and save the note, so that you can deal with the tasks the next day.
Avoid alcohol and tobacco
Some people fall asleep more easily from alcohol, but the overall quality of sleep always gets much worse when we have had it. Nicotine has an invigorating effect and disturbs both sleep and sleep quality.
Many people sleep deeper if they are physically tired. Physical activity can thus help with sleep problems. Adjust the exercise according to desire, ability and schedule, and be realistic! Invest in activities that you find enjoyable. Then there is a greater chance that you implement them.
All exercises that calm the mind and make you slow down are good for sleep. Meditating, doing a yoga session, listening to relaxing music, having a quiet conversation or just reading a book in cozy lighting before bedtime can help.
Before there were artificial sleeping pills, herbs were used to relax more easily. A patented blend of turnip, hop extracts and Redormin, has been shown in clinical studies to improve sleep quality. Many people report that melatonin supplements provide better sleep. Melatonin is available in the UK with a prescription from your GP.