Insomnia: What to do when you can’t sleep

Insomnia is a sleep disorder in which you have trouble falling and/or staying asleep. Photo: Supplied/Health For Mzansi

A good night’s sleep is incredibly important for your health. In fact, it’s just as important as eating healthy and exercising. If you do not get consistent, good quality sleep, other areas of your life will suffer

Insomnia is a very common problem that takes a toll on your energy, mood and ability to function, just ask Amelia April (37) from Paarl. Photo: Supplied/Health For Mzansi

She would go to bed every night at ten o’clock, prepared to go to sleep. Hours later Amelia April (37) from Paarl in the Western Cape would still be wide awake, staring at the ceiling and listening to her husband’s soft snores. 

At times she would get up and go to the bathroom in search of antacid to get rid of the dreadful heartburn that plagued her constantly. 

“I had insomnia for months every night because of heartburn. I would toss and turn and many times it affected my husband’s sleep. By the time I would go to sleep, it was already three in the morning. I had to get up at 06:40 to get my son ready for school, but I was exhausted and lacked energy to face the day,” April says. 

After a while, she realised her ritual of having coffee in the early evening caused the heartburn and subsequent insomnia. It took a long time to change her habits and cutting out coffee made her irritable and craving her nightly fix, but she finally kicked her habit. 

“I now only permit myself some coffee in the morning and only every now and then. I sleep much better now, and my husband is very happy because I don’t disturb his sleep anymore. I also have more energy to face the day.”

Get your zzz’s

General practitioner Dr Anke Portwig says a lack of sleep can lead to fatigue, memory loss and a change in eating habits. 

General practitioner, Dr Anke Portwig. Photo: Supplied/Health For Mzansi

“General causes of insomnia are tension and psychiatric conditions like anxiety and depressive moods; medical conditions associated with pain, nocturia (a condition that causes you to wake up during the night to go to the bathroom), dyspnoea (difficult orlaboured breathing) or sleep apnoea (a potentially serious sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts),” Portwig explains.

“A change in routine, for example shift workers or people with jet lag; use of stimulating substances and certain medication can also cause insomnia.”  

According to the World Sleep Society, three elements of good quality sleep are:

• Duration: The length of sleep should be sufficient for the sleeper to be rested and alert the following day.

• Continuity: Sleep periods should be seamless without fragmentation.

• Depth: Sleep should be deep enough to be restorative.

Bad sleeping habits can also be caused by what you eat and drink before you go to bed, especially less than two hours before you turn in. 

“Stimulants that can cause insomnia are coffee, fizzy cooldrinks and energy drinksbecause it contains caffeine and sugar. Alcohol makes you drowsy but can cause you to wake up earlier than usual,” says Portwig. 

While a morning mug of coffee can make you more alert and better able to concentrate, too much caffeine can lead to restlessness, feelings of anxiety and an increased heart rate. Photo: Supplied/Health For Mzansi

There is also another side to this coin because certain other foods and drinks can be good for your sleep. “A diet that is low in refined sugar and carbohydrates can improve your quality of sleep.” 

There are natural products that can aid insomniacs.

“Melatonin is a hormone that exists in elevated levels naturally in the body during sleep. It is also available as a pill for the treatment for insomnia.”

General practitioner, Dr Anke Portwig

However, Portwig cautions that sleeping pills are a short-term solution and the ideal is to find the cause of the insomnia and treat it. 

“Sleeping pills must be used at the lowest effective dose and not for longer than three consecutive weeks. If it is necessary for long term, it must not be taken daily and must be reduced progressively, instead of stopping it quickly.” 

Changing your sleep habits and addressing any issues that may be associated with insomnia, such as stress, medical conditions or medications, can restore restful sleep for many people. Photo: Supplied/Health For Mzansi

Most sleep disorders are preventable or treatable, and there is help available – if you seek it. “Good sleep hygiene is part of the treatment for insomnia. It involves a fixed sleeping routine in a comfortable, quiet environment. The bedroom should preferably not be used to work in. 

“Avoid stimulants like coffee and big meals before going to bed. Avoid television and radio before bedtime. Avoid sleeping during the day and try to do physical activity during the day. Take a warm bath or read a book to relax before going to bed,” is Portwig’s advice. 

And finally, those late-night check-ins on your cell phone or scrolling through social media will not help. So, if you want to get your zzz’s, find some peace. 

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