I have terrible trouble sleeping and I’m becoming increasingly irritable and frustrated. What can I do?

Lack of sleep making life hell

I have had terrible difficulty sleeping for the last month. I frequently can’t nod off until four or five in the morning and I have to be up early for work. It’s affecting my work and I’m becoming increasingly irritable and frustrated. What can I do to stop this cycle? I’m worried about taking sleeping pills.

Marian, 63

Women do tend to suffer more often from insomnia than men, but one in three people suffer a period of insomnia at some point of their lives. People over 60 tend to be affected more often than younger people.

Regular, refreshing sleep is as important to your health as diet and exercise, so lack of sleep is a condition you should take seriously. Six to seven hours’ sleep per night is recommended for a healthy lifestyle, but the quality of your sleep is even more important than the quantity.

It is a cause for concern if you are getting less than 4.5 hours sleep per day. Acute, short-term insomnia can be caused by jet lag or changed work patterns or anxiety, but you are said to suffer from chronic insomnia if you have difficulty sleeping for three or more nights in a week over a period of a month or more.

Insomnia can be a very debilitating condition. As well as the frustration and discomfort involved, you may experience several knock-on effects:

–       Impaired work or study performance

–       Increased risk of obesity

–       Reduced immune system function

–       Increased risk of high blood pressure

–       Increased risk of diabetes and heart disease

There are a number of common treatable causes, including;

–       sleep apnoea

–       thyroid problems

–       depression

–       menopausal symptoms

–       pain

–       bladder issues

Four out of five cases of insomnia are treated by curing an underlying condition. Your first step should be to contact your GP who will diagnose if you are suffering from one of these conditions and recommend appropriate treatment.

You should try to avoid sleeping tablets. Studies show that long-term use of sleeping pills doesn’t bring about improved sleeping patterns. There is also the high risk of dependency and the danger that daytime drowsiness could cause falls or accidents.

If your doctor does prescribe pills, they should be used only for a few days.

Some recommend melatonin as an insomnia treatment, a hormone that your body produces naturally at night, but it is a prescription-only product in Ireland. It should also be said that its long-term safety has not been proven.

I prefer my patients to develop good sleep habits – work on a routine where you go to bed and get up at the same time each day. Make sure your bedroom is a relaxed, uncluttered, airy space. I do not recommend watching television in bed, as this can prevent restful sleep.

Avoid caffeine and other stimulants after early afternoon. Even alcohol, which can bring about sleepiness, leads to broken sleep.

Large late meals should also be avoided but light snacks may help.

Overcoming insomnia is primarily about relaxing the mind. Try not to think about falling asleep. Keep clocks or watches out of sight as focusing on the time will only increase anxiety. Try keeping a pen and paper by the bed to write down any distracting worries or thoughts that flood your mind. And the old counting sheep trick can still work wonders.

Medical advice provided is not always suitable for specific cases. Always see your GP if you are concerned about a medical problem.

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