Insomnia is the inability to fall asleep or stay asleep. Most people need between seven and nine hours of sleep per night, although some people need less and others need more.

Lack of sleep can lead to tiredness during the day, irritability, lack of concentration and poor memory. Insomnia can last for a few nights or up to several weeks. It is more common in women than men.

Causes

  • Strong emotions such as anxiety, stress or excitement. Change in routine such as a change in environment, jet lag or working shifts. Depression. Medical problems such as indigestion, cramp, pain and breathing difficulties. Taking certain medicines.
  • Environmental factors such as noise, light and heat

Avoiding Insomnia

  • Keeping to a regular sleep routine helps to prevent insomnia. Relaxing before bedtime such as having a warm bath, listening to music, reading or carrying out a relaxation technique such as yoga or meditation can promote sleep. An electric blanket can help by relaxing muscles and increasing brain temperature. A bedroom should be dark, quiet and well ventilated. Avoid sleeping during the day. Avoid big meals late in the evening. Avoid drinks containing caffeine such as tea, coffee, drinking chocolate and cola after lunchtime. Caffeine can stimulate mental activity and can make sleeping more difficult. Hot, milky drinks or decaffeinated varieties are good alternatives. Do not smoke, especially just before bedtime because nicotine is a stimulant. Do not drink more than two units of alcohol just before bed. Regular exercise helps to promote sleep but it is not a good idea to participate in any strenuous exercise late in the evening. If staying asleep is your problem, try getting up and having a drink or watching television for a while, then go back to bed.
  • Earplugs may help to cut out any surrounding noise which often disturbs sleep

Treatment

Many treatments to aid sleep can be bought over the counter at a pharmacy. The antihistamines diphenhydramine and promethazine have been widely used and can be effective. Some people prefer 'complimentary medicines' which are thought to be 'natural' and therefore safer. They are either herbal or homeopathic but there is often little evidence that they work. All treatments should only be used for short periods (no longer than three weeks). They should not be taken during pregnancy or while breastfeeding.Doctors can also prescribe medicines to treat insomnia but, as with other effective treatments, they should be taken for short periods only.

Additional Information

For more information about insomnia, contact the British Sleep Society, PO Box 247, Huntingdon PE17 3UZ.