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Insomnia means literally not being able to sleep but the term includes a whole range of difficulties associated with sleep. For most people having a bad night’s sleep is not the end of the world but some people seem to ‘need their sleep’ more than others. The body usually adapts to a single bad night by making up for it on the next and subsequent nights.However, if poor sleep becomes a habit it can get pretty distressing for the person concerned and taking a pill to ‘sort it out’ seems quite tempting.

However before reaching for that bottle it is worth thinking a little about causes and what you can do about them. In most people’s experience the thing that keeps them awake at night is some unresolved issue from the day such as an argument with the boss or feeling guilty about something you failed to do. Continual insomnia may be cause by a running argument with your partner or ongoing pressure at work. Generally speaking dealing with the core problem will beat taking a pill in the long run.

The next thing to consider is ‘sleep hygiene’. This rather quaint term refers to the common does and don’ts which help give us a refreshing night’s sleep and you probably recognise at least a few of them. Firstly it is worth remembering that certain foods and drugs act as stimulants and keep us awake – and their effects vary from person to person. Cheese and coffee are perhaps amongst the best known – but did you know that alcohol, contrary to popular belief, is not very good at keeping you asleep – despite the fact that it may make you drop off? Many people exacerbate a simple problem by ‘relying on’ a bedtime drink.

Enough physical exercise during the day to feel a little tired at night is important – as anyone who has been laid up for any reason will know. Similarly it is important not to stimulate the brain too much late at night. Working until the small hours may seem like a good idea at the time but it can be very difficult to ‘wind down’ afterwards. It is important, therefore, to establish some sort of routine and to have one or more of the following: a bath, a warm non- stimulant drink, a carbohydrate snack such as a biscuit and a time for winding down such as chatting with your partner, watching something relatively unexciting on TV or reading a (non-work orientated) book.

But what if none of the above do the trick – does medication work? The short answer is that it depends on what sort. The type of pills one can buy over the counter fall into the general category of relaxants and so tend to work in the same way as the warm drink or the bath. Doctors quite often prescribe ‘hypnotics’ such as Temazepam. These can actually induce sleep and keep you asleep for a few hours but the feeling of having had a good night’s sleep is often missing and there is sometimes a ‘hangover’ effect. They can be addictive after a couple of weeks or so. Rarely poor sleep is a symptom of physical illness such as thyroid disease or depression. People who are depressed usually feel low in mood or lack interest in life and sometimes lose their appetite, energy or suffer poor concentration. If you are at all worried that your insomnia is not ‘run of the mill’ or you have other symptoms, which concern you – you should consult your general practitioner.

Danny Allen

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