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How to get your head down Posted on: 04 Sep 01


If you have suffered from insomnia for a protracted amount of time you should consult your doctor. For those of us who just can’t seem to drop off from time to time, try some of the methods and advice
The average adult needs around 7-8 hours sleep a night, this enables the body and mind to rest sufficiently in order to be restored for another days activity. Insomnia, the inability to get to sleep, affects most of us at some time in our lives. The reduction in our nightly quota of deep and dream sleep leads to a vicious circle, irritability and tiredness leading to increased stress and anxiety, which in turn affects our ability to sleep the following night. For the majority, insomnia is a passing phase linked to the regular stresses of life, career worries, moving house, money worries etc. In these cases sleep can often be achieved by using some of the simple techniques described below culminating, if necessary, in the use of sleeping drugs (hypnotics). However chronic insomnia is a more serious issue requiring counselling or maybe psychotherapy to address the root cause of the sleeplessness. If you have suffered from insomnia for a protracted amount of time you should consult your doctor. For those of us who just can’t seem to drop off from time to time, try some of the methods and advice below. But remember, if you still don’t seem to be getting any more than three or four hours sleep a night, it doesn’t seem to have done Baroness Thatcher much harm…
  • Establishing a pattern can allow your body to prepare itself for sleep more easily. Plan to go to bed at a regular time each evening and make sure the hour before you try to sleep has been relaxing. Reading, a massage or a warm (not hot) bath can all help to lower your pulse rate and make sleep come more easily.
  • Try to avoid stimulation from food or drink, challenging your stomach to digest a large meal, spicy snack or complicated foodstuff like cheese will keep parts of your body active when ideally everything should be at rest. If you are hungry, banana, avocado or lettuce are all sleep inducing foods. Caffeine should definitely be avoided, especially as it can stay in the system for up to eight hours, similarly try to avoid nicotine or alcohol. A warm milky drink like Horlicks or Ovaltine may not be the height of sophisticated urban living but it can do wonders for your ability to get your head down.
  • There is a considerable body of anecdotal evidence, particularly in the problem pages of tabloid newspapers, that suggests that having sex is the ideal way to induce a man to go to sleep. It’s not just men who can benefit however, medical research confirms that sex is a great way of preparing the body for sleep for either sex. The release of natural endorphins into the brain can both bring on sleep and relieve stress at the same time.
  • Counting sheep may be the traditional way of dropping off but it is based on sound psychological evidence. Relaxation techniques encourage the heart rate to slow enabling the brain to switch into a state of sleep. Counting sheep works by encouraging the heart rate to drop using the monotonous regularity of some ovine hurdling but there are equally useful and less hackneyed methods around. Try listening to your breathing and trying to slow it down using deep breaths, this brings your consciousness in line with your resting pulse and allows the mind to switch off and sleep to come. Another handy technique is the process of stretching or clenching muscles for a few seconds and then allowing them to relax. Start with your hands and stretch or clench the muscles for five seconds. Then, allow them to relax and let the feeling of relaxation filter across your body, move on to your forearms and then your upper arms. This process of stretching or clenching followed by relaxation allows the body to work out tensions in the muscles. Go on to repeat the process working up your legs from your feet.
  • The position you adopt in bed can have a profound affect on your ability to sleep. The classic sleeping position is very similar to the outline image of a murder victim from old Hollywood movies (see image at top of page), face down with one leg fully extended and the other slightly bent, one arm should be raised above the head and bent the other should rest alongside the head, again slightly bent. Of course different positions work for different people and some can fall asleep nearly anywhere, but the classic position is a useful guide to remember, adopt or adapt if you are struggling to drop off on a particular night.
  • Herbal teas can help relax the body and prepare it for sleep, camomile tea is excellent for this but the ideal mixture would feature a blend of camomile, valerian and St. John’s Wort, best taken an hour before going to bed.
  • Sleeping drugs, also known as hypnotics are a last resort that will usually only be provided once a sufferer has been through the full range of self-help remedies. They work by suppressing brain function and are therefore subject to a variety of ‘hangover’ effects the following day including drowsiness, dizziness and confusion in the elderly. There is also a danger of dependence with some hypnotics and anxiety, convulsions or hallucinations can result if the regular intake is suddenly withdrawn. As a result doctors are reluctant to prescribe hypnotics unless severe lack of sleep is beginning to affect general health. The quality of sleep induced by hypnotics is also reduced with significantly less deep sleep and dream sleep experienced by patients, both of which, in addition to light sleep are necessary for a truly restful night. However sleeping drugs are useful in re-establishing a pattern of sleep and the habit of sleeping itself. If the root cause of the insomnia can be treated they are an effective way to help sufferers get their sleeping patterns back to normal.
Sleep is a vital part of our daily lives and is particularly essential for those in demanding occupations or people under significant stress. If your sleeping patterns are interrupted and the methods described above just don’t seem to be working, try to analyse the external factors that might be causing you to stay awake, and if they are serious, speak to your doctor about the possible alternatives.

Mark Stacey

Last updated on: 27/08/2010 11:40:18

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