Poor sleep — as anyone who suffers from it knows — can make life a misery. And it is taking its toll on the nation’s health.
According to the recently published Great British Sleep Survey, more than 51% of us now struggle to get a good night’s sleep, with women three times more likely to be affected than men. Evidence collected from 20,000-plus adults between March 2010 and this June shows that 93% of insomniacs report low energy levels and 83% complain of mood swings. Some 77% find it hard to concentrate, 64% say they are less productive at work, and 55% report relationship difficulties.
Even worse, persistent poor sleep can increase the risk of developing conditions including diabetes, dep-ression, high blood pressure and strokes. Research at the University of British Columbia suggests every hour of sleep lost at night may cost us one IQ point the following day. In Britain, we treat poor sleep with medication: the NHS spent a staggering £50m on sleeping pills last year, with 15.3m prescriptions dispensed across England, Scotland and Wales. But many pills have side-effects and findings suggest they do not solve long-term sleep problems.
So how can we do something about poor sleep without pills? Most people focus first on what Colin Espie, professor of clinical psychology and director of the University of Glasgow Sleep Centre, calls “sleep hygiene”: our pre-bed routine, and the physical environment in which we try to sleep. Espie believes these factors account for a mere 10% of sleep problems. But most sleep experts concur that the following do make a difference.
Light: A dark room is important to a good sleep. Also try to avoid “blue light” or light from laptop, tablet and smartphone screens less than two hours before bed.
Food, drink, exercise: Anything that stimulates the system — such as caffeine, alcohol, chocolate, tobacco, a heavy meal or strenuous exercise — will make it harder to get to sleep. Indigestible foods are obviously best avoided.
Sleep debt: A weekend lie-in or afternoon snooze can do more harm than good as “sleep debt” is best “repaid” by getting up and going to bed at your normal times rather than disrupting your body clock.
Age: There is not much you can do about it, but it may help to know that it can get harder to sleep as you get older.