It’s hard to believe but most of us will spend on average a third of our life asleep.1 Good sleep is essential to good health; unfortunately many people have issues with sleep. When you are asleep, your eyes are closed and the majority of your muscles relaxed. Your consciousness is practically on hold, but your brain is still quite active.1 While sleeping you pass through various stages, from light sleep to heavy sleep, to Rapid Eye Movement (REM) or dreaming sleep, and back again. This is repeated several times per night.2

Causes of sleep issues

The most common sleep issues are difficulty falling asleep, waking through the night and poor sleep quality. This is sometimes referred to as insomnia. Sleep issues may arise from a range of factors:

  • Excessive stress and an overactive mind can affect sleep. During times of stress it may be difficult to switch off your mind.
  • Too much activity before bed, whether physical or mental, can affect your ability to fall asleep.3
  • Poor sleep habits will impact sleep. If you do not have a routine which includes the same bed time and wake time each day it can lead to further sleep problems. This is known as ‘sleep hygiene.’3
  • Stimulants – caffeine and other stimulants such as nicotine close to bedtime can affect ability to fall asleep and quality of sleep.3
  • Lack of exercise – being physically tired contributes to good quality sleep.3

Sleep issue symptoms

There are various symptoms which may accompany sleep issues which can affect you at different times, depending on the cause. These may include:

  • Difficulty falling asleep.
  • Waking several times in the night.
  • Waking fatigued and feeling excessively tired during the day.
  • Increased moodiness and irritability may be a consequence of poor sleep.2
  • Poor concentration and memory.2
  • Impaired judgement and reaction time.2
  • Poor physical coordination.2

How to prevent sleep issues

By encouraging good sleep hygiene you can help improve your sleep cycle and reduce the risk of poor sleep patterns. Many things may help prevent sleep issues from developing:

  • Sleep environment is key – it should be as calming as possible with few distractions. The bedroom should feel quiet and relaxing with a comfortable temperature. Fans or heaters may be needed. Ensure that your bedroom is dark enough, even consider getting blackout curtains. It’s worth investing some money in a comfortable bed and pillows.
  • Bedroom is for sleeping – keep televisions and technology out of the bedroom that means switch off those screens! Try not to study or work in your bedroom. Relaxing activities such as reading should not affect sleep.
  • Respect your body clock – Our sleep-wake cycle is controlled by a 24 hour internal physiological ‘clock.’ You need a strict sleep routine to help ‘set’ your body clock. This means going to bed at the same time and getting up at the same time every day, even if you are still tired. Exposure to early morning sunshine also helps to set your body clock.2
  • Don’t tackle anything that causes stress too close to bedtime – Write down things that are on your mind so that you can address them another time.
  • Exercise – is great for stress relief and to help obtain quality sleep, but try not to exercise too close to bedtime as it may be hard to wind down.3
  • Watch what you eat –heavy foods and overeating prior to bedtime may affect the quality of sleep.
  • Relaxation before bedtime – a warm bath or breathing exercises can help you to fall asleep and achieve quality sleep.3 Some may prefer listening to relaxing music, meditation or a technique known as progressive muscle relation. This is where you consciously relax every part of your body, starting with your toes and working up to your scalp.

How to manage sleep issues

There are many other simple changes you can include in your daily routine to help with sleep. Some of these include:

  • Avoid stimulants such as caffeine and cigarettes late in the day. Even though many smokers find the habit relaxing, nicotine is a stimulant which can increase the heart rate and keep you awake for longer.3
  • Avoid alcohol – while this may help you to fall asleep, it can affect the rhythm of sleep patterns leaving you more tired in the morning. It also may cause frequent waking to use the toilet.3
  • Consider natural medicines – Lactium is a hydrolysed milk protein from cows’ milk which may be beneficial during times of stress, a major contributor to sleeping difficulties.
  • Zizyphus – this herb is used in traditional Chinese Herbal Medicine for its mild sedative action to calm the mind and assist in a healthy night’s sleep.
  • Valerian – this herbal medicine is beneficial during times of stress and may relieve nervous tension and mild anxiety. It has a natural sedative action and may help in the relief of sleeplessness and insomnia. It usually has no effect on reaction time, alertness and concentration the morning after intake.
  • Passionflower and Hops– these herbs are used in traditional Western Herbal Medicine for their sedative action and for the relief of insomnia. Passionflower may also reduce the effects of mild anxiety and nervous tension.
  • Chamomile – helps relieve nervous unrest and helps reduce the effects of mild anxiety and nervous tension.
  • Underlying medical or mood conditions may affect sleep. Seek support from your healthcare professional if this is the case.

Frequently asked questions

Why is sleep important?

It helps us restore ourselves physically and organise things in our brain. We need sleep so our body and mind can function properly. It is thought that sleep keeps our immune system as well as our heart and blood vessels healthy. Sleep helps growth and healing, and controlling our appetite and weight.1 Sleep is also important for attention, learning and memory.2

What happens if I don’t get enough sleep?

Not getting enough sleep can be serious. It can affect concentration and mood as well as work productivity and relationships. This is why people who don’t sleep enough are more likely to have road accidents and injuries at work.1

How much sleep do I need?

Adults need about eight hours of sleep depending on various individual factors.