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While Santa and his reindeers are on their way to deliver the presents in the early morning hours of Christmas Day, some of us may be too excited to go to sleep on Christmas Eve.
Yet, there are also many among us suffering with insomnia and sleep difficulties. In fact, a lot of people may find it difficult to fall asleep, have frequent awakenings and difficulty to get back to sleep, wake up early, have a restless sleep or even sleep too much.
There are many potential reasons why these sleep difficulties occur. These include physical health problems (such as pain or medical conditions associated with an increased need to go to the toilet), substances (such as medications, caffeinated drinks or alcohol) or even stress, worrying and mental disorders (such as anxiety or depression).
The association between sleep and mental health is bidirectional. Not only mental illnesses can affect and disrupt our sleep, but also sleep difficulties can compromise our mental health and well-being.
Sleeping pills are notorious for often being ineffective (especially in the longer term) as well as for their side effects, and this is why many doctors are often reluctant to prescribe them.The good news is that there are things you can do to improve your sleep. These are usually referred to as ‘sleep hygiene’, and focus on 7 key areas:
1. Sleep routine and consistency
Try to go to bed and get up at about the same time every day. This will help you set your body’s internal clock and optimise the quality of your sleep. You should also avoid day naps, because if you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep at night, napping during the day can make things worse and perpetuate a vicious cycle.
Try to take your mind off sleeping and take time for relaxing activities before you go to bed. If you have been lying awake for half an hour, get up, try to relax and then go back to bed.
Create a calm and restful sleep environment: not too noisy or light, not too hot or cold and with a comfortable bed. Avoid using electronic devices, such as smartphones, tablets, laptops, TVs, or gaming machines, within one to two hours before bedtime, and while you are in bed. These devices emit blue light, which stimulates your brain and inhibits the production of melatonin, the hormone your body needs to sleep.
4. Food and drinks
Here’s what to avoid (and why): Caffeinated or energy drinks (coffee, tea, fizzy drinks, energy drinks) in the hours before bedtime (caffeine is a stimulant and will interfere with your sleep); alcoholic drinks before bed (alcohol can also interfere with and affect the quality of your sleep). You should also avoid drinking too many liquids in the evening (this may result in frequent bathroom trips throughout the night).
Huge and heavy meals at night is not ideal. Try to make dinnertime earlier in the evening, preferably 4 hours before going to bed). Avoid too spicy or acidic foods (they can cause stomach trouble and heartburn).
You should exercise vigorously during the day, as regular exercise will help you sleep better at night and feel less sleepy during the day. Relaxing, low-impact exercises such as yoga or gentle stretching in the evening can help promote sleep.
Exercising regularly can promote daytime alertness and help bring sleepiness at night. Here is a helpful guide on sleeping temperatures.
Try to get as much natural sunlight as possible. Melatonin, a naturally occurring hormone controlled by light exposure, helps regulate your sleep-wake cycle. Your brain secretes more melatonin when it’s dark, so you feel more sleepy, and less when it’s light, so you feel more alert.
7. Don’t worry
Easier said than done, try not to worry about not getting to sleep, as this will make things worse and will keep you awake for longer. Try to remember that not getting enough sleep will not hurt you; you will fall asleep after a while. If you are stressed or anxious and cannot switch your mind off when you go to bed, try to practice relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or visualising a peaceful, restful place. Try the old advice and count sheep.
In addition to the tips above, you may also find helpful the excellent self-help guide from the Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust.
Dr Alex Chatziagorakis is a London-based consultant psychiatrist and a member of the Royal College of Psychiatrists.