When we think of healthy living, we usually think of eating a balanced diet and exercising. But sleeping well is just as important to our health and wellbeing. There are many ways to develop better sleeping habits and steps you can take if you need help.
Why is sleep important?
Good quality sleep leaves you feeling rested and refreshed when you wake up. It helps your brain and body function well, and is important for your overall health and wellbeing. Regular good sleep can:
- improve your mood and support your mental health
- give you more energy
- boost your immune system, so your body can fight off illnesses like cold and flu more easily
- help prevent serious medical conditions, like heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes.
A good night’s rest can mean something different for different people. In general, adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep. But don’t worry if you get slightly more or less than this. It’s more important to focus on the quality of your sleep than the number of hours. Visit The Sleep Charity for more information.
Does our sleep change as we get older?
As we get older, it’s normal for our sleeping patterns to change. You may find you:
- have more trouble falling and staying asleep
- become tired earlier in the evening
- wake up more often during the night
- sleep more lightly, so may feel less refreshed when you wake up
- nap more often during the day
- experience changes in your circadian rhythm – this is when you naturally wake up and fall asleep each day.
However, these changes shouldn’t regularly disrupt your sleep. If your daily life is being affected, you may have insomnia.
Insomnia and trouble sleeping
If you’re feeling stressed or ill, or your usual routine is disrupted, it’s normal to have trouble sleeping. This usually gets better by itself once things settle down. But if you regularly find it difficult to sleep, or feel tired during the day, it could be a sign of 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 during the day.
Insomnia can 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
- needing to go to the toilet during the night
- having to work night shifts
- problems with a partner snoring.
You’re not alone if you're experiencing sleeping problems. There are things you can do to get a better night’s sleep.
Lifestyle changes to help you sleep
As a first step, try adjusting some of your habits.
During the day
- Try to wake up at a similar time each day, so your body clock gets used to this routine. You could set an alarm to help with this.
- Avoid napping – or limit any naps to 30 minutes, before 4pm. Napping too long during the day can disrupt your sleep at night.
- Be as active as you can. Walking to your local shops, doing household chores or gardening all count as exercise – and being active can help improve your sleep later. For more tips, see our webpage Staying active in later life.
- 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 or malted milk drinks.
- Spend time outside in natural light, particularly in the morning and early afternoon – it can help wake you up if you feel groggy.
- 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. But don't go to bed hungry either - this makes it hard to fall asleep.
- Avoid intense exercise just before bedtime. While it’s good be active during the day, exercising too close to bedtime can make it harder to fall asleep.
- Don’t look at bright screens, such as the TV, computer screens or a mobile phone, right before going to bed. The light prevents the release of melatonin, a hormone that makes you feel sleepy.
- Wind down an hour before bedtime – do something relaxing like taking a bath, reading a book or playing calming music.
- Go to bed at a similar time every night – like waking up around the same time, this will help reset your body clock.
Different things work for different people – try a few of the tips and see what you find most helpful. Changing your habits takes time, so don’t give up if you don’t feel better straightaway.
Tips to help you fall asleep
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 18°C (64°F) is ideal
- you have pillows, covers and a mattress that you find comfortable
- you use earplugs or eye masks if you’re easily disturbed by noise or light during the night.
If stress and worries 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. Visit the NHS website for information.
If you can’t fall asleep after 20 minutes, don’t continue to lie there. Instead, 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.
Help for sleeping problems
If you think a medical condition or medication is affecting your sleep, contact your GP, pharmacist or GP practice nurse. 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. They also don’t tackle the root of the problem. Relying on sleeping pills can lead to addiction. You should always get advice from your GP or pharmacist before taking any. See our guide Understanding alcohol and drug misuse for information about addiction.
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, your sleep may be disturbed because of your caring responsibilities. Our guide Caring for someone has advice on managing your caring duties along with your own wellbeing.
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 Charity has a diary template you can download and use.
To talk to someone about your sleep, or for advice on sleeping problems, call The Sleep Charity's National Sleep Helpline.