Insomnia and How To Beat It

7 Min Read | By Chris Clark

Last Modified 27 March 2023   First Added 21 August 2017

This article was written and reviewed in line with our editorial policy.

Insomnia is a word that gets thrown about whenever we talk about sleep troubles. But do we really know what it means? Most people would say insomnia is the inability to sleep, and it can feel like a relentless battle for those who suffer from it. It’s no wonder, so many people want to know how to beat insomnia – the effects of this condition can be debilitating.

It is a growing issue, with The Sleep Council reporting that over a quarter of us now suffer from insomnia. In fact, 51.3% of Brits struggle to nod off. And our Sleep Survey highlighted people have a disturbed, broken, or bad night’s sleep 3.64 times per week. It seems we are a nation of poor sleepers.

What is insomnia?

Insomnia definition:

A sleep disorder characterised by difficulty in initiating or maintaining restorative sleep to a degree in which the severity and persistence of the sleep disturbance cause clinically significant distress, impairment in a significant area of functioning, or both.

Source: APA Dictionary

The NHS defines insomnia as ‘difficulty getting to sleep or staying asleep for long enough to feel refreshed the next morning, even though you’ve had enough opportunity to sleep.’ We’ve all had those evenings where we’ve laid awake counting down the hours until we need to be up for work. For insomnia sufferers, this is a nightly occurrence.

Key Stats:

  • According to a UK Mental Health Foundation survey, men’s average sleep score is 61% compared to 57% for women.
  • Only 38% of respondents consider themselves ‘good sleepers’.
  • Over 75% of people with insomnia experience poor concentration.

7 ways to help beat insomnia

Let us share a few tips to help you snooze again…

1. Try cognitive behavioural therapy

CBT is a proven method of re-learning how to sleep again. The therapy helps you make sense of overwhelming problems by examining how they affect you and your sleep.

We spoke to Katherine Pinkham, Insomnia Expert and Founder of the Insomnia Clinic, who says CBT results “show that on average 70% of people with even very long term poor sleep obtain lasting benefit from the treatment.”

See the full interview in the full podcast below.

2. Try mindful relaxation for insomnia

Insomnia is often related to feelings of anxiety. If you often worry about things, you need to address these and place them aside when you get into bed. Try relaxation training such as:

  • Breathing exercises
  • Mindfulness
  • Meditation techniques and yoga
  • Guided imagery

3. Beware of blue light

Artificial light, LEDs, fluorescent bulbs and incandescent bulbs trick the brain into thinking it’s daytime. Your body will want to warm up and prepare for the day by producing a hormone called cortisol, which you don’t wish to do before bedtime! Instead, dim your lights a couple of hours before hitting the hay.

Kathryn Pinkham says, ‘Blue light technology can inhibit the production of melatonin, known as the sleep hormone. We need melatonin to drop off at night, so too much screen time before bed can interfere and tell our body and mind it’s daytime, making it hard to drop off.’

Ideally, switching off all devices at least an hour before bed would be best or using a night filter to switch off the blue light.

 

4. Avoid caffeine if possible

Stay clear of anything caffeinated after 2 pm. Caffeine stays in your system for up to 8 hours. One study by the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that consuming caffeine 6 hours before bedtime reduced total sleep time by 1 hour.

 

5. Avoid alcohol

Alcohol acts as a sedative that makes your body and mind skip the vital stage of your circadian rhythm, which results in a poor night’s sleep. This is not good for those with insomnia, so avoid it at least 3 hours before bed.

 

6. Ask your doctor for advice

Your doctor is the most highly qualified source of advice regarding insomnia. If treating sleeplessness yourself is a struggle, your doctor can recommend alternative methods to get a good night’s rest.

 

7. Practise good sleep hygiene

Practising good sleep hygiene is the best way to begin your journey to getting a better night’s sleep. The phrase refers to a set of practices and habits that promote healthy and restful sleep, including:

  1. Consistent sleep schedule: Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, even on weekends, helps regulate your body’s internal clock.
  2. Creating a relaxing bedtime routine: Activities such as taking a warm bath, reading a book, or deep breathing exercises can help prepare your body for sleep.
  3. Comfortable sleep environment: A quiet, dark, and cool room with a comfortable bed and mattress can promote better sleep.
  4. Regular exercise: Regular physical activity can help promote better sleep, but it’s important to avoid exercising too close to bedtime.
  5. Avoiding screens before bedtime: As mentioned earlier, the blue light emitted by electronic devices can interfere with your body’s natural sleep-wake cycle.

By improving our sleep hygiene, we can develop better habits, overcome bad ones and break the vicious cycle of insomnia.

Symptoms of insomnia:

  • You find it difficult to fall asleep
  • You lie awake for long periods at night
  • You wake up several times during the night
  • You wake up early in the morning and are not able to get back to sleep
  • You do not feel refreshed when you get up
  • You find it hard to nap during the day, despite feeling tired
  • You feel tired and irritable during the day and have difficulty concentrating
  • You cannot memorise things easily

It’s very common to experience these symptoms occasionally, which won’t cause lasting damage. However, long-term suffering can cause significant problems in a person’s life, such as constant exhaustion, lack of concentration and severe mood swings, which can result in mental health issues such as depression or anxiety.

If you experience any of the symptoms above, you should speak to your GP for medical advice on how to beat insomnia or, at the very least, get it under control.

Let's listen to the experts

In this episode of the Dreams’ Sleep Matters podcast, Dr Pixie McKenna is joined by Matt Johnson, a broadcaster and ambassador for mental health charity Mind, who for many years has suffered sleepless nights as an insomniac. Kathryn Pinkham, the founder of The Insomnia Clinic, one of the UK’s only specialist insomnia services, also gives her thoughts on how you can still function while suffering from insomnia. Here they discuss:

  • Living with insomnia and poor sleep
  • Mental health and sleep
  • Ways to relieve the effects of poor sleep
  • What is insomnia?
  • How to optimise your sleep
  • Sleep hygiene

Watch on YouTube

 

Listen here on Spotify

 

What causes insomnia?

Although we’re all different, research has shown a distinct pattern of how sleep loss becomes chronic and insomnia develops. That pattern follows three stages.

Firstly, a person may be more prone to sleep difficulty than others. They may be naturally anxious or struggle to ‘switch off’ at night. These factors would predispose somebody to insomnia.

There is also usually something that triggers an episode of insomnia. This could be a period of emotional stress like losing a loved one or going through a divorce. It could be a sudden change in the environment – for instance, a nearby building site or it could be as simple as a cough and cold disrupting your sleep pattern. These things would lead most of us to lose some sleep. For some, however, things don’t return to normal afterwards, leading to insomnia.

As a result of poor sleep, habits and behaviours develop that are intended to combat the effects of sleep loss but end up worsening the problem. We sleep during the day, we drink tea or coffee to try and stay alert, and although these things can help us in the short term, they make it more difficult to sleep at night. We start to spend more time in bed to get more sleep which disrupts our body clock, making it harder to sleep well, and that’s when we get trapped in the vicious cycle of insomnia.

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