Having difficulty sleeping now and again isn’t unusual, but if it becomes a pattern, it’s important to get expert help. There are a number of reasons why people experience insomnia or disturbed sleep but a lack of sleep can affect your health and have a severe impact on the way you function at home and in the workplace.
Insomnia and broken sleep can be linked to depression. Although not always clear which comes first, depression itself is thought to disturb sleep by disrupting the body clock that keeps sleep on track. The risk of developing depression due to difficulties sleeping may increase for those with chronic insomnia.
When we don’t sleep well for a night or two, it’s possible to become so anxious about getting to sleep that the anxiety itself keeps us awake. Learning to reframe your thinking to accept that waking can be normal will help lower sleep anxiety. Relaxation exercises may also help to prevent sleep anxiety.
If someone has sleep apnoea, it means that the walls of the throat come together during sleep, blocking off the upper airway and reducing the oxygen supply to the body. It can be recognised by listening to a person breathing and snoring – they may have brief pauses that last a few seconds to a minute. After a minute the person may snore or gasp and wake up briefly as they struggle to breathe. Sleep apnoea requires prompt treatment.
Delayed sleep phase syndrome
To feel sleepy or drowsy, we need our levels of the sleep hormone – melatonin – to rise. The levels of melatonin don’t rise in some people until much later in the night, making it difficult to fall asleep until after midnight or in the early hours of the morning.
Advanced sleep phase syndrome
This is a similar problem to delayed sleep phase syndrome — causing the person to feel sleepy early in the evening, sometimes as early as six o’clock. This may lead them to wake up in the early hours of the morning and be unable to get back to sleep.
Restless legs syndrome
People with this syndrome may experience uncomfortable sensations in the legs and sometimes the arms. The sensations are often described as crawling, tingling, painful or prickly and can cause an irresistible urge to move the legs. Self-help techniques and medicines may help treat the problem.
Periodic limb movements of sleep
Periodic limb movements of sleep (PLMS) causes involuntary leg movements such as flexing the toe, bending the knee or hip twitching. This can disturb the sleep of the person with PLMS or any other person sharing their bed. Sometimes it can be treated by reducing alcohol, caffeine and smoking or by taking certain medicines.
Seek help for sleep problems
If you’ve experienced sleepless nights for more than a few weeks or if you’ve relied on sleeping pills for more than two weeks and cannot sleep properly without them, it’s important to seek help from your GP. Depending on the problem at hand, he or she may be able to assist or may refer you to a sleep specialist or a psychologist for general advice about sleeping habits.