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It's important to get enough sleep so that you can function well during the day. However, a lot of things can disrupt normal sleep patterns, such as various sleep disorders, or even just having too much caffeine late in the day. Try these strategies to make sure you get the sleep you need.

This can help if:

  • you have trouble getting to sleep most nights
  • you often wake during the night
  • you feel exhausted, irritable and moody during the day.
Boy staring at phone in dark

What is normal sleep?

Most people need between seven and nine hours of sleep a night to function properly. Everyone has nights where they don’t sleep well, especially if they’re sick or feeling stressed. However, sleep difficulties become a problem when low energy levels due to poor sleep impact your mood, health, concentration, learning and socialising. Also, when you’re extremely tired, it can be dangerous to drive a car or motorbike, operate heavy machinery or care for others.

What causes sleep problems?

Sleep disorders are often associated with:

  • the use of large amounts of stimulants (e.g. alcohol, tobacco and caffeine)
  • medical problems such as asthma, chronic pain or severe allergies
  • mental health issues such as depression, panic attacks or an anxiety disorder
  • the use of medications such as steroids, diuretics, painkillers and heart medications (ask your doctor if you think this is relevant to you)
  • obesity (this significantly increases your chances of having sleep problems, especially sleep apnoea).

Types of sleep disorders

Insomnia

Insomnia is persistent low-quality sleep. It might mean you have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, or that you wake up and can’t get back to sleep. It’s a fairly common problem, particularly for women.

Sleep apnoea

People with sleep apnoea stop breathing during sleep. These disruptions to breathing cause other sleep disturbances. The most noticeable signs of sleep apnoea are snoring at night and feeling extremely tired during the day. This disorder is very common but often goes undetected, and is twice as likely to occur in men than women.

Restless legs syndrome

People who have restless legs syndrome (RLS) tend to experience an unpleasant and tingly sensation in their legs while trying to sleep. The discomfort causes a strong urge to move their legs, which gets rid of the tingling but also makes it hard to fall asleep. Due to the constant disruptions to their sleep, people with RLS are often extremely tired during the day. RLS can start in early adulthood but is more common in middle-aged and older people.

Narcolepsy

Narcolepsy is a rare sleep disorder that involves uncontrollable daytime sleepiness. This is much more than just dozing off during a boring lecture. It’s caused by a problem in the brain area that controls sleeping. If you have narcolepsy, you may experience sudden and unavoidable bouts of sleep, called ‘sleep attacks’, while talking to someone, working or even driving, regardless of how much sleep you’ve had the previous night.

Tips for improving your sleep

If you’re having trouble sleeping, try these suggestions:

  • Ditch caffeine after midday by avoiding coffee, tea and soft drinks.
  • Turn off your television, mobile phone and laptop or tablet at least 30 minutes before bed. The light from these devices can trick your brain into thinking it’s still daytime.
  • Keep a sleep diary. Write down the time you go to bed and the time you wake up. Include details like your mood, and any food, drinks and medications you consumed before bed. After a week or two, try to identify any factors that might have caused you to sleep poorly.

Professional help

If the suggestions above don’t work or you think you might suffer from a sleep disorder, talk to your GP, who can:

  • prescribe sleep medications, which you should only take temporarily
  • refer you to a sleep clinic that can diagnose any severe sleep disorder
  • recommend a psychologist or counsellor if anxiety, depression or other mental health issues are affecting your sleep.

What can I do now?