Insomnia is a sleeping disorder where sufferers have difficulty either falling asleep or staying asleep. This results in suffers not getting enough sleep and feeling tired the next day. Insomnia can be classified as either acute or chronic. Chronic insomnia is defined when a person has insomnia for at least 3 nights per week for more than a month. Prolonged periods of insomnia can lead to irritability, problems with concentration and memory and increase the risk of heart disease.
Causes of Insomnia
There are multiple causes of insomnia. The most common causes are:
- Stress and anxiety
- Pain or physical discomfort
- Medications (diuretics, beta-blockers and some anti-depressants can disturb sleep)
- Stimulants (alcohol, nicotine and caffeine all interfere with sleep quality)
- Environmental factors (noise, light and temperature can effect sleep)
- Changes in hormone levels before menstruation or during menopause
- Sleep apnoea (this occurs when the airways narrow and limit the amount of air that you breathe. If you are getting too little air you will wake up to breathe properly)
Medical Treatment of Insomnia
Sleeping tablets can be prescribed for short-term help in achieving sleep. The most commonly prescribed drugs are benzodiazepines (e.g. loprazolam and nitrazepam) and Z drugs (e.g. zaleplon and zopiclone). These drugs have many side-effects including drowsiness the next day and confusion at night if you wake up. The body quickly develops a tolerance to these drugs and are typically prescribed for only 7 days as prolonged use can result in addiction.
Melatonin tablets can also be prescribed. Melatonin is naturally made in the body and helps the body get good quality sleep. Melatonin tablets are normally only prescribed to people over 55 with chronic insomnia.
Alternative Therapies for Insomnia
There are several natural approaches that can be taken to help with insomnia
- Reduce stimulant intake–Abstaining from caffeine, alcohol and nicotine for at least 4 hours before sleep can help reduce insomnia. Turning the TV and computer off at least 2 hours before sleep can reduce mental stimulation and help you fall asleep more quickly.
- Bedroom changes –Only use the bedroom for sleep to allow your body to only associate it with sleep. Make sure the bedroom is fitted with good curtains to block morning sunlight and is maintained at a comfortable temperature during the night.
- Bedtime routine– Try to maintain a constant routine of the hours when you are awake and asleep by sleeping and waking at the same time each day. Resisting the urge to have a lie-in and nap during the day will help maintain a good sleeping routine.
- Relaxation techniques – Numerous relaxation therapies such as progressive muscle relaxation, yoga and meditation can help decrease mental and physical arousal before bed.
- Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) – CBT includes the 4 items listed above and teaches patients about common misconceptions regarding sleep that may be contributing to anxiety-induced insomnia. Research studies have shown that this can have long-term benefits and can be more beneficial than using sleeping tablets.
Dietary Solutions for Insomnia
A healthy well-balanced diet can be used to help reduce the incidence of insomnia. It is important to not have a heavy meal within 2-3 hours as this can disturb sleep. Instead, it is recommended to have a small snack that is low in protein and high in carbohydrate. This will increase serotonin production which decreases anxiety and encourages sleep. Bananas, whole-grain bread, cereal and yoghurt are all good pre-sleep snacks.
Additionally, serotonin and melatonin levels can be increased by mixing honey with herbal teas made using fenugreek, peppermint, lavender and chamomile. These teas will help you relax and sleep more deeply.
Red wine, bacon, cheese and soya sauce should be avoided because they have high levels of tyramine, which causes the release of the brain stimulant noradrenaline.
Vitamins and minerals for Managing Insomnia
Calcium and magnesium are required for good quality sleep and can help prevent night muscle cramps. Increasing your intake of these minerals with green leafy vegetables (e.g. kale, cabbage and spinach), nuts and seeds (e.g. sunflower and pumpkin seeds) or supplements may help prevent insomnia.