One of life’s most irritating pains is not being able to fall asleep. Whether you haven’t been able to get a single moment of shut-eye or keep waking up through the night, it can feel impossible to lure sleep to you.
And the more you try to chase it, the further sleep seems to get away. But there are some things you should avoid doing if you find yourself in this difficult insomnia-ridden position.
We spoke to Dr Katharina Lederle, head of sleep health at sleep programme Somnia. She explained the five things we should not be doing if we find ourselves unable to doze off.
1) Don’t reach for your phone
She tells us: “It might be an easy way to distract from the unwanted thoughts about not sleeping, however, the light from the phone or tablet will fool your body clock into thinking it is daytime.
“Not only will this alert you, your body clock might also start to assume that is the new day is starting and actually wake you up. Using your phone can also bring about more thoughts, because now you think about what you read!”
2) Don’t get up to eat something
Having a sip of water is ok, but eating at night is bad for your metabolic and general health, she adds. “For example, melatonin which is high at night increases insulin resistance. Therefore the body won’t be able to absorb all the sugar from the biscuit you ate and blood sugar levels remain high. That in turn puts you at risk of diabetes and metabolic syndrome.”
3) Don’t drink alcohol
While drinking in moderation is safe, there are some established links between excessive alcohol intake and sleep. According to The Sleep Foundation, alcohol has sedative effects that can induce feelings of relaxation and sleepiness, but the consumption of alcohol – especially in excess – has been linked to poor sleep quality and duration.
They also say that alcohol can reduce REM sleep and cause sleep disruptions, leaving you more tired the following day and relying on things such as caffeine to wake you up.
4) Don’t take sleep medication
Dr Lederle discourages taking sleep medication regularly whether it’s prescribed or over the counter. “If they help at all, they will leave you feeling groggy in the morning because your body hasn’t had a chance to fully clear itself of the substance.”
5) Don’t leave your bed
It’s tempting to want to take a walk around the house or do anything that doesn’t involve simply lying in bed, but Dr Lederle advises against doing so.
“This is controversial, but stay in bed. Of course, go to the bathroom if you need to or if you are in pain get up and do what’s needed to alleviate the pain. However, getting up to have a cup of tea, doing work, going for a run, or doing the ironing all involve light and they drain your energy resources even more. In staying in bed, you give your body the chance to rest.”
So, what should you be doing if you find yourself unable to snooze?
Dr Lederle says: “Trying to force sleep to happen isn’t going to work because there is too much pressure, tension and expectation. Also, struggling with a busy mind, trying to shut it up often doesn’t work but instead leaves us feeling disappointed. So learning to notice and allow thoughts and then choosing to gently shift your attention back to the breath – perhaps again and again – slows down the mind and body, and thus can aid sleep.
She refers to mindfulness meditation, which is all about looking at what reality is and what you’d like it to be, in a non-judgemental way.
“It’s not about saying ‘Oh, I am awake, but that is fine’ because often it isn’t fine. But can you acknowledge that you are awake, that you don’t like it, that there are a million and one thoughts, and that all of this is annoying to say the least. And then choose to let all of that be, you don’t have to wrestle with all the unwanted thoughts or feelings, you can just let them be.
How can this help sleep? “It helps you to remain calm and peaceful, and from such a state it is much easier to fall asleep,” explains Dr Lederle.
It might take a while but allowing yourself some compassion, time and energy to take a pause, a deep breath, and let it all be, while focusing on your breath work, might (hopefully) do the trick and guide you to sleep.