Why is sleep important?

Good quality sleep helps your brain and body function well the next day. It’s important to get the right amount of sleep for both your physical and mental health. A good night’s rest can mean something different for different people. In general, adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep.

Regular poor sleep can affect your overall health and make you more at risk of serious medical conditions, such as heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes.

Having trouble sleeping

If you’re feeling stressed, ill or experiencing a temporary disruption to your usual routine, it’s normal to have trouble sleeping. But if you’re regularly finding it difficult to sleep, or feel tired during the day, it could be insomnia. 

Common signs of insomnia include:

  • finding it hard to fall asleep, even if you feel tired
  • waking up easily during the night
  • feeling tired and unrefreshed after waking up
  • having difficulty concentrating on things during the day.

As you get older, it’s normal for your sleeping patterns to change. You may have more trouble falling and staying asleep, or become tired earlier in the evening. However, these changes shouldn’t regularly disrupt your sleep. If your day-to-day life is being affected, you may have insomnia.

Insomnia can also be caused by:

  • pain or certain health problems
  • menopause and post menopause
  • side-effects of medications
  • depression or anxiety
  • sleep disorders, such as sleep apnoea or restless legs syndrome
  • being woken up by your bladder during the night
  • having to work night shifts
  • problems with a partner snoring.

Remember, you’re not alone if you're having sleeping problems. There are many things you can do to help yourself get a better night’s sleep.

Make small lifestyle changes

Try adjusting some of your habits.

During the day

  • Aim to wake up at a similar time each day, so your internal body clock gets used to this routine. You could set an alarm to help you with this.
  • Avoid napping – or limit any naps to 30 minutes in the afternoon. Napping too long during the day can disrupt your sleep schedule at night.
  • Be as active as you can – walking to your local shop, doing chores around the house or spending time in your garden counts as exercise, and it can promote good quality sleep later. Our webpage Staying active in later life has more tips on exercising.
  • Drink less caffeine – if you drink tea or coffee, try to give yourself plenty of time between your last drink and your bedtime. If you’re used to having hot drinks to relax, you could try alternatives such as herbal tea and malted milk drinks.
  • Spend some time outside in natural light, particularly in the morning and early afternoon – it can help wake you up if you feel groggy or unalert.

Before bedtime

  • Avoid alcohol – although it may make you feel tired, it can disturb your sleep.
  • Don’t eat a heavy meal or drink too much before bedtime, as you may feel uncomfortable when lying in bed.
  • Try not to exercise vigorously just before bedtime – while it’s good be active during the day, exercising too close to bedtime can cause sleeplessness.
  • Don’t look at bright screens, such as the TV, computer screens or your phone, right before going to bed. The light prevents the release of melatonin, a sleep-inducing hormone, making it harder to fall asleep.
  • Wind down an hour before bedtime – taking a bath, reading a book or playing calming music can help you feel more relaxed.
  • Go to bed at a similar time every night – like waking up around the same time every day, this will help your internal body clock. 

Different things work for different people – try a few of the tips and see what you find most helpful. Adjusting your habits is a gradual process, so don’t feel disheartened if you don’t experience improvements straightaway.

I have always read in bed before putting my light out. This helps me to relax and always has done since I was a child.

Going to bed

Your bedroom should be a calming space where you can relax and fall asleep. Make sure it’s quiet, dark and at a comfortable temperature – usually around 18°C (64°F) is ideal. Use earplugs or eye masks if you’re easily disturbed by noise or light during the night. Get pillows, covers and a mattress that you find comfortable.

Stress and worries can also keep you up. You could:

  • write your thoughts down in a journal – for example, writing down a list of things you need to do the next day could help take it off your mind
  • keep your clock out of sight if you feel anxious counting down the minutes
  • practise relaxation techniques, such as breathing exercises and mindful meditation. The NHS has more information about mindfulness

If you find yourself unable to fall asleep after 20 minutes, you don’t have to lie there hoping it will happen. Get up and go into another room, keeping the lights dim if you can. Do a light activity, such as reading a book or listening to music. After 20 minutes, try going back to bed again. You can do this as many times during the night as you need.

If I wake up, I ‘meditate’ and let any troubling thoughts drift through my mind rather than focusing on them. The thing is to remain calm and not become troubled by waking for a while.

Get help for sleeping problems

If you think a medical condition or medication is affecting your sleep, contact your GP. You could also talk to them if the problem isn’t related to a medical condition and your sleep hasn’t improved after a month of changing your habits.

If you have insomnia, your GP may refer you to a therapist for cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia (CBTi). This is a talking therapy that can help you find practical ways to manage your problems. You can apply for free online support with Sleepstation, an online programme that allows you to access CBTi remotely.

Sleeping aids and pills can sometimes work as a short-term solution, for example, if you’re having trouble sleeping while recovering from an operation. But they have many side effects and can make long-term sleeping problems worse. Reliance on sleeping pills can lead to addiction. You should always get advice from your GP or pharmacist before taking any. 

If you share your bed with a partner who snores, the NHS website has some tips on how to deal with this problem. 

If you’re a carer, you may also be experiencing disturbed sleep due to your caring responsibilities. Our guide Caring for someone has advice if you need support on managing your caring duties with your own wellbeing.

I now have a weighted blanket, which makes me look forward to going to bed. They are used in the NHS to give comfort and relief from anxiety to patients.

Next steps

Visit the NHS website for more information about insomnia.

Keeping a sleep diary can help you and your GP understand your sleeping pattern and habits. The Sleep Council has a diary template you can download and use.

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