Insomnia – what it is and what to do

Insomnia what it is and what to do

Everyone has trouble sleeping every now and again, but around one in three people in the UK will regularly experience insomnia.

Insomnia can look like having difficulty falling asleep in the first place, or difficulty staying asleep for the whole night. It can last a few days, or even a few years, and can seriously impact your quality of life. It can affect your mood, your energy levels, your relationships, and your ability to work.

How much sleep do you need?

The average adult, according to the NHS, should be getting around 7-9 hours of sleep a day, with children getting around 9-13 hours. If you or someone you know consistently gets less sleep than that, it might be insomnia.

What are the long-term impacts of insomnia?

Getting enough sleep helps you process thoughts, emotions and memories, and is part of keeping your body and your mind healthy.

Not getting enough sleep can cause stress, anxiety, depression, paranoia, and even lead to conditions like heart disease, diabetes and obesity for those who simply lack the energy to move or eat properly.

People suffering from insomnia can struggle to maintain healthy relationships with family, friends and colleagues, struggle to make good decisions, and to concentrate at work.

What causes insomnia?

The trouble is that things like stress, anxiety, depression and grief can also CAUSE insomnia.

So can certain medications, or medical conditions – for instance sleep disorders like sleep apnoea where your breathing stops and starts while you’re asleep, un-managed pain, an overactive thyroid, heart arrythmias, or the menopause.

It can also be caused by changes in your sleep pattern, for instance doing shift work, having jet lag, or a new baby. Another factor is your environment, if it’s too light, hot, cold, or your bed or pillow are uncomfortable.

Alcohol and drugs can also have a detrimental impact on sleep – especially things like nicotine, caffeine, cocaine and ecstasy.

How do I know if I’ve got insomnia?

You might have insomnia if you recognise any of the following symptoms from our quick Insomnia Test:

  • Do you find it difficult to get to sleep at night?
  • Do you lie awake a lot?
  • Are you waking up several times a night?
  • Do you wake up early and can’t go back to sleep?
  • Do you feel tired when you wake up?
  • Do you feel tired and cross during the day?
  • Do you have trouble concentrating because you’re tired?
  • Are you struggling to take in new information?
  • Are you clumsy?
  • Do you lack energy for activities you used to enjoy?
  • Are you getting increasingly forgetful?
  • Do you lack patience?
  • Are you struggling to make decisions?
  • Do you find yourself making poor choices?
  • Are you yawning excessively during the day?

How is insomnia treated?

A pharmacy can advise you on over-the-counter treatments for sleep difficulties, often including natural ingredients or antihistamines. None of these are suitable for long-term use, and could also make you drowsy if you take them at the wrong time – so always follow your pharmacist’s advice.

If your sleep problems are ongoing, it’s really worth chatting them through with a GP so other medical conditions can be ruled out.

Your GP might suggest Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to help retrain your brain away from thoughts and patterns that are stopping you from sleeping. In rare cases they might also prescribe sleeping pills if no other treatments have been effective, but these can have very serious side effects.

The first step you should take if you suspect you’ve got insomnia, is to try and treat it yourself by adopting healthy sleep habits.

What can I do to get better sleep?

You spend a third of your life asleep – or you should. Here’s how to make the most of that time:

Take exercise – but not right before bed

Moving your body during the day can help you feel physically tired enough to go sleep at night – but exercising in the evening could give you too much energy to sleep! Getting the balance right is key to getting a good night’s rest.

Don’t nap in the day – even if you’re tired

It’s really tempting to go to have forty winks during the day if you haven’t slept well at night – but that could throw you out for the next night, too. Try and stay awake in the day if you can - while also avoiding energy drinks or caffeine as quick fixes.

Avoid big meals and alcohol/drugs

It’s not just energy drinks and caffeine you should avoid, alcohol and other drugs can impact your sleep, too. So can what you eat – particularly big meals close to bedtime. You want your body to be concentrating on sleep, not digestion!

Set aside worry time well before bedtime

Many people experience racing thoughts or worries just as they go to sleep - which can keep you awake as your mind turns everything over. One way to avoid that is to give your worries airtime BEFORE bedtime.

That means sitting down and letting all the intrusive thoughts and worries in, and even writing them down so they’re out of your head. From there you can even spend time working through which thoughts are helpful, which are unhelpful, and what you might be able to do to mitigate them. Having that space for them, and that plan, can help keep them at bay when you’re trying to fall asleep.

Stay off screens for one hour before bed

You’ve probably heard that the blue light from your devices, and even your telly, can keep you up at night. Sadly, it is true, because it reduces the production of melatonin – which you need to feel sleepy.

Staying off your phone when it’s your entertainment centre and communications lifeline isn’t easy  - but reading a book, listening to music or doing a puzzle instead can help your brain and body relax better. If you’re really struggling to put your phone down, it might be time to think about if you need a wider digital-detox to give your brain a bit of a break.

Makeover your sleep space – and keep it for sleeping

Think about how you can optimise your bedroom and your bed for sleep. That might mean investing in blackout blinds, turning down the radiator, getting new soft sheets and blankets, a new pillow, new pyjamas, a sleep mask and ear plugs - or something lavender scented to help you relax.

The more inviting and comfortable your sleep space, the more you’re going to want to be in it. Remember, once you’ve got everything set up, try and keep your sleep space for sleep – and only go there when you start to feel sleepy. Telly watching, phone scrolling and texting should be left for the sofa.

Go to bed at the same time, and get up at the same time

It sounds odd, but having a regular bedtime, and a regular getting up time actually helps you re-establish good sleeping habits. Don’t be tempted to lie in and not get up with your alarm – you’ll end up feeling even more tired and even more out of routine.

Stop worrying about not sleeping

A lot of people can’t sleep because they’re so anxious about not sleeping – a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you can’t sleep, don’t stay in bed tossing and turning. Get up, read a book or listen to a podcast for a bit, and go back into your sleep space when you start to feel sleepy again.

Why should businesses care about sleep?

Insomnia doesn’t just have a personal impact – it has a major impact on workplaces, too.

Figures from research agency RAND show the UK could be losing around 200,000 working days due to the adverse effects of lack of sleep – adding up to something like $50 billion in lost earnings.

If you want happy, productive and innovative employees, you want well-rested employees.

Policies and benefits like flexi-time, remote working, GP access and mental health support services can be part of the picture of supporting good rest by helping people manage their time, their health and their worries better.

Insomnia resources

Health Assured – Lack of sleep
Health Assured – Sleep and mental health
Sleep Foundation


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