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difficulty sleeping

Difficulty sleeping - symptoms, causes and treatment

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One in 10 Australians struggles with falling and staying asleep. We look into what you can do to support a better night’s rest.

Everyone experiences disrupted or disturbed sleep every now and then, particularly when a change in routine occurs – for example travelling to a different time zone, working different hours, or sleeping in a different environment to the one you’re used to.

Difficulty falling asleep is common and often and has a knock-on effect during the day, causing everything from tension headaches and tiredness to poor memory and mood swings.Most of us will experience trouble sleeping at stage in our lives, so that at any given time it’s thought that around one in every 10 Australians is living with it. It tends to affect more women than men and becomes more common with age. Shift workers tend to have a higher risk of experiencing difficulty sleeping, too.

For some people trouble sleeping is an ‘acute’ experience, lasting for a few weeks or even a couple of months, often in response to feeling stressed or worried about something. For others, difficulty sleeping can become chronic condition, lasting for at least three months. As well as constantly and consistently feeling impaired during the day, chronic difficulty sleeping can also bump up the risk of other health problems, so it’s important to seek advice around managing and treating the problem.

Symptoms associated with difficulty sleeping

  • Difficulty falling asleep
  • Waking up a lot during the night and not being able to get back to sleep
  • Waking up too early and not being able to get back to sleep
  • Unlike occasional sleep disturbance, chronic difficulty sleeping also leads to daytime symptoms including tiredness, irritability, mood swings, poor memory and concentration, reduced motivation and even worrying about sleeping.

    Causes of interrupted sleep

    A number of things can contribute to difficulty sleeping, including stress, life events and issues, and even habits and routines that disrupt sleep, also known as ‘poor sleep hygiene’.

    Caffeine, alcohol, nicotine and certain medications may also increase sleep disruption. Medical issues – particularly ones that cause pain – hormonal changes, and urinary or digestive problems can also make falling asleep difficult.

    It’s also important to bear in mind that acute difficulty sleeping can sometimes evolve into chronic trouble with sleep. This is particularly true if the short-term sleep disruption triggers unhelpful thinking patterns or behaviours around sleep, for example choosing to go to bed earlier and earlier in an attempt to catch up on sleep. This can be counterproductive if it only means more time spent in bed, feeling frustrated about not being able to sleep.

    Practising good sleep hygiene

    Treatment for trouble sleeping often involves a few different strategies depending on the severity of the condition, but committing to healthy bedtime behaviours and creating a ‘sleep friendly’ environment can be key.

  • Avoid alcohol and stimulants such as cigarettes and caffeine-containing beverages after 3pm. Instead, try relaxing herbal teas such as chamomile, which is traditionally used to aid sleep.
  • Regular exercise can help to improve your sleeping patterns, but avoid exercising in the two-hour window before bedtime, as this may energise rather than relax you. Similarly, avoid stimulating books and television before bed as these may make it more difficult to get to sleep.
  • A glass of warm milk at bedtime may help to induce sleep, as may a warm bath containing relaxing essential oils such as lavender or chamomile.
  • Establish a routine of going to bed at the same time every night, as this helps to reset your body’s circadian rhythm. It’s a good idea to get up at the same time every morning for the same reason.
  • Ensure your bedroom is quiet, dark and well ventilated. Earplugs and eyeshades may help to reduce noise and light, and are particularly valuable for shift workers.

  • Important notes

    If you’ve been having trouble sleeping for some time and you regularly wake up not feeling refreshed or you’ve noticed problems with your mood, it’s a good idea to see your doctor.