Helping you get through tough times

Sleeping problems

Most people need between five to nine hours sleep a night to function. Generally, eight hours is seen as the ideal, but everyone’s different.

Sleeping problems or sleeplessness, difficulty sleeping or getting to sleep, is often referred to as insomnia.

clockOften stress and anxiety can lead to sleeping problems. As the stressful situation passes, a more regular sleep pattern should return.

Irregular sleep patterns can also be related to depression.

If you’ve been feeling down for a couple of weeks and have been unable to sleep speak to your GP.

Factors that can disrupt sleep include:

  • asthma and breathing disorders
  • pregnancy – during the third trimester of pregnancy sleep is usually dramatically reduced
  • stimulants in the blood stream like caffeine and nicotine
  • some prescribed and over the counter drugs
  • some forms of the contraceptive pill
  • decongestants and pain and cold relievers
  • jet lag.

Impact of poor sleep

Problems getting to sleep, waking early or not being able to sleep throughout the night can affect your general wellbeing.

Effects of insomnia include:

  • decreased concentration levels
  • decreased energy levels
  • difficulty concentrating
  • difficulty remembering things.

How to improve your sleep quality

Try to set routines. Go to bed at the same time each night and get up at the same time each morning.

This helps your body clock get into rhythm and makes sleeping feel more natural. Avoid sleeping during the day, because it makes it harder to fall asleep at night.

Process the day’s thoughts and feelings and then let go of them.

If it helps, write things down or talk about them with someone you trust. Learning meditation is a very useful tool for stilling the mind and relaxing the body.

It can be a very effective way to release tension and de-stress. See relaxation for more.

What you can do to manage insomnia

  • Implement routine: Try to go to bed and wake at the same time daily.
  • Limit the bed to sleeping: Try not to study, watch TV, read or eat in bed
  • Exercise: Do some exercise during the day to induce tiredness.
  • Relax before bed: Have a warm bath, listen to soothing music, use deep breathing techniques, yoga, tai chi etc.
  • Avoid naps: Napping during the day may minimise your ability to sleep at night.
  • Minimise anxiety: Try not to tackle anything that may cause stress & anxiety just before bed time, or write down any worries you may have.
  • Avoid stimulants: Avoid having caffeine (coffee, tea, chocolate, cola) or cigarettes before bed. [NB: alcohol may make you drowsy but can disrupt sleeping patterns.]
  • Warm and soothing drinks: Warm chamomile or peppermint tea or a milk-based drink may help you sleep.
  • Lavender: Lavender is considered a natural sedative, so sprinkling some oil on your pillow may assist.
  • Natural Remedies: Valerian is considered a non-addictive, sleep-inducing herb that also assists in relieving stress and anxiety and is available at supermarkets or pharmacies. St John’s Wort is another natural product which is used to treat anxiety, stress & insomnia, but is unfortunately not available over the counter in Ireland.
  • Sleep in a well ventilated room, that’s neither too hot nor cold
  • Avoid excessive exercise just before going to bed
  • Avoid eating a heavy meal late in the evening
  • Play soft gentle music. The heart actually follows the beat of the music so high-energy dance music revs you up, while slower more peaceful music helps you unwind.

If none of these help, do consult your doctor.

Circadian rhythms

Circadian rhythms are daily cycles based on a 24-hour period, which are strongly influenced by regular changes in the environment like night and day.

This natural cycle helps coordinate regular bodily functions like appetite, energy, mood, and sleep.

It does this by regulating the timing, amount and quality of the hormones and neurotransmitters the body produces and releases.

Out of sync

When our body is out of sync with this 24-hour cycle, we can be at risk of developing circadian rhythm disorder. In the short term we may experience circadian disruption, like jet lag following long flights.

Functioning as a time-keeping mechanism for the mind and the body, the suprachaismatic nuclei (SCN) synchronize the 24-hour periods. They control most other rhythms of the body by working with time-keeping genes and hormones, like melatonin.

Together they coordinate the daily rhythms and cycles that control the rise and fall of hormones, chemicals and neurotransmitters that determine waking times, sleep, appetite, sex and other key aspects of our lives.

Sleep-wake system

Many of the rhythms of our body and mind are synchronised with nature. For example, when our biological clock is functioning properly, the urge to wake up will start to increase in the morning, as the sun is rising.

The circadian system and the sleep-wake system then prompts our bodies to produce cortisol, serotonin, and other hormones that wake us up, increase blood pressure and cause body temperature to rise.

Likewise, at sunset, the body receives another cue and responds to the lack of sunlight by producing and releasing the hormone melatonin. Unlike at sunrise, this leads to a decrease in blood pressure and allows the body to prepare for and eventually fall into sleep.

Importance of sleep

Sleep is a crucial part of our daily lives. It helps restore energy, keep memory functioning properly, and helps to heal our bodies. When sleep is disrupted or deprived, we don’t feel as alert, we are easily agitated and all of our actions seem slow.

Stress and anxiety caused by work, family, and daily life commonly lead to sleeping problems.

People’s lives have become much more fast-paced. Hectic work schedules little time to unwind and relax. We get less sleep as a result, causing many of us to feel exhausted.

When our bodies are out of sync with the 24-hour circadian rhythm cycle, our hormone and neurotransmitter release is negatively affected. This can cause our bodies to suffer from a circadian rhythm disorder (CRD), which can sometimes trigger depression.

To avoid developing CRD, try no to take naps during the day and allow yourself time to wind down before going to bed. Exposure to light in the mornings, regular exercise and a healthy diet can also help.

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)

Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is closely related to CRD. During the winter months, our bodies receive insufficient amounts of light.

This can cause malfunctions, resulting in the production of the wrong hormones at the wrong time of day.

Research also shows that without sunlight, the brain doesn’t produce enough serotonin, which can trigger depression.

The symptoms usually diminish as the days get longer, although many SAD sufferers note brief (one to two-week) periods of SAD-like symptoms in the summer.

Bipolar disorder is different to major depression in that it is marked by episodes of euphoria or mania. These episodes can last for hours, days or even months.

In almost all cases of bipolar disorder, depressive and manic episodes are seasonal, leading doctors to make a connection between the disorder and CRD.

Less daylight

In autumn and winter, as daylight decreases, bi-polar sufferers enter a depressive phase, and require increased intervention.

Those with the disorder also suffer from sleep problems and feel worse at a particular time of day. Because these symptoms reflect a circadian rhythm disorder, doctors have found success by treating bipolar disorders with bright light.

Talk to your GP about more information about circadian rhythm disorder, bipolar disorder or seasonal affective disorder.

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This article was last reviewed on 23 April 2017

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