It’s not unusual to have trouble sleeping as we get older because our sleeping patterns naturally change. This means that many of us struggle to get to sleep - or stay asleep - leaving us tired and grumpy the following day.
Too many sleepless nights take their toll because, contrary to common belief, we still need the same amount of sleep as we did when we were younger.
'It’s a myth that we need less sleep as we get older,' says Professor Adrian Williams from the London Sleep Centre, 'but we are less able to stay asleep as we age.'
'This means that sleep is less consolidated and more prone to being influenced by poor sleep environment or bad habits.
'If you tend to wake up in the night or very early in the morning, light exposure will cause a shift in your body clock, so you'll need to make some changes to your routine in order to break the cycle and get a good night’s sleep.'
In particular, try to keep regular habits and routines around sleep. Keep regular bedtimes, avoid ‘lying in’ and, if you enjoy a daytime nap, schedule this for roughly the same time each day.
Are you suffering from insomnia?
Most of us have trouble sleeping from time to time, especially if we're feeling stressed or anxious.
Professor Kevin Morgan, Director of the Clinical Sleep Research Unit and Loughborough University, says: 'If you wake up feeling reasonably refreshed, generally function properly during the day and feel sleepy around bedtime, then you're probably getting enough sleep.'
However, if you frequently feel tired throughout the day, lack of sleep could be a problem. The main symptoms of insomnia are:
- Difficulty falling asleep
- Waking up in the night
- Waking up early in the morning
- Feeling tired, irritable and having trouble concentrating during the day
Insomnia is more common in women than men, and also tends to increase with age. It can also be triggered by a stressful event, health problems and medication, including beta-blockers and HRT.
Why insomnia is bad for you
While the occasional bad night’s sleep is unlikely to affect you too much, insomnia can have a huge impact on your daily life.
'You know that insomnia has become a problem when your day is affected,' explains Professor Williams. 'Lack of sleep is associated with poor performance at work and it can affect your mood, causing problems within your relationships. Poor sleep can also affect your appetite, making you more likely to crave unhealthy foods and gain weight.'
Studies show that people with insomnia are more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression, heart failure and diabetes.
Sleep deprivation can also lead to accidents and injuries and can also affect memory, because sleep cycles give your brain a chance to consolidate memories. For all these reasons, it’s important to talk to your GP if you’re not getting the sleep you need.
How to sleep well
Experts agree that practising good 'sleep hygiene' can make an important contribution to getting a good night’s sleep. This is just another way of saying that you need to get into good habits, including:
- Going to bed and getting up at the same time every day
- Establishing a bedtime routine
- Making sure that your bed and bedding are comfortable
- Avoiding caffeine, nicotine and alcohol in the evening
- Not eating a heavy meal late at night
- Avoiding exercise in the evening
- Cutting out daytime naps
- Keeping your bedroom cool and dark
- Banning TV and computers from the bedroom
If you tend to wake up in the night and struggle to get back to sleep, get up and go into another room after 15-20 minutes. Avoid doing anything too involved, such as work or housework, and resist the temptation to turn on the television.
Instead, try reading, listening to the radio or having a warm bath. Try going back to bed 20-30 minutes later and, if you still have chronic difficulties in getting to sleep or staying asleep - which lead to daytime fatigue - do the same thing again.
Where to get help
If you’ve only recently started having trouble sleeping, there’s no harm in asking your pharmacist for advice.
'Over-the-counter remedies can be useful, provided they aren’t used on a regular basis,' says Professor Williams.
But if your sleeping problems last for more than a month and none of the self-help measures seem to help, it’s a good idea to see your GP.
At first, your GP will probably ask you about your sleeping habits, advise you on sleep hygiene and possibly ask you to keep a sleep diary.
In the short-term, you may be prescribed a short course of sleeping tablets to help you catch up with some sleep, but these aren’t recommended for long-term use as they don’t tackle the underlying causes of insomnia and can be addictive.
Instead, you could be referred to a psychological practitioner for cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia (CBT-I), which can help you to break patterns of behaviour that may be interfering with sleep.
In addition, a medicine that contains Melatonin is available on prescription for people over the age of 55.
Melatonin is a naturally-occurring hormone that helps to regulate the sleep cycle, also known as the circadian rhythm. It has been shown to be effective at relieving some types of insomnia symptoms for up to 26 weeks in older people and can be taken for up to three weeks.
If things still don’t improve, ask your GP for a referral to a sleep specialist, who can help to identify whether any other issues, such as restless leg syndrome or sleep apnoea are causing problems.
'Managing sleep and insomnia symptoms is fundamental to healthy ageing,' says Professor Morgan. 'So chronic sleep problems should not be regarded as either an inevitable, or an acceptable part of the normal ageing process.'