Sleep Problems

What are Sleep Problems?

Sleep problems, often referred to as insomnia, are incredibly common. In fact, it’s estimated that 30% of the adult population suffer from issues with their sleep. Sleep problems are particularly common amongst children, women and those over 65 years of age. Therefore, if you’re struggling to sleep, it may be comforting to remember that you are not alone and that it’s perfectly normal to experience periods of insomnia. However, lack of sleep can still be distressing and can really take its toll on our physical and emotional well being. So what are sleep problems and why do we experience them?

How much sleep do we need?

Do you ever find yourself getting anxious about whether you're getting the right amount of sleep? This anxiety can often make it even harder for us to fall asleep. So how much sleep do we actually need? The answer isn’t clear cut - different people need different amounts of sleep to function well and feel good. Our need for sleep changes throughout our lifetimes. New-born babies usually spend between 14 and 17 hours a day sleeping, but this drops to 8-10 hours by the time they are a teenager. Typically, 7-9 hours is the recommended amount of sleep for an adult, however, studies show that it can range from around 6-10 hours. Meanwhile, adults over 65 need slightly less sleep, with a recommendation of 7 to 8 hours. Our activity levels also have an effect on our need for sleep. If you are retired or don’t do much activity during the day, you are likely to need less sleep than someone who has young children or who is on the go all day. Instead of worrying about the amount of hours you’ve slept, ask yourself ‘do I feel refreshed? Do I feel awake throughout the day?’. If the answers are yes, then you’re probably getting the right amount of sleep for you

Throughout the night, we experience different types of sleep. These types of sleep can be sorted into two categories: Rapid Eye Movement (REM), which is the lightest sleep and where most of our dreaming takes place, and Non-REM, which is much deeper. Whilst we sleep, we flit between these light and deep sleeps and even wake up periodically, though you probably won’t remember that in the morning. In fact, it’s quite common to wake up every 90 minutes. Just as our need for sleep changes with our age, so does our type of sleep. Usually, adults over 65 will experience lighter sleep and will wake up more frequently. Indeed, an average 70 year old will spend less than 10% of the night in deep sleep. However, this is normal and nothing to be worried about and you should still feel refreshed in the morning.

How do sleep problems develop?

Sleep problems can range from struggling to get to sleep, struggling to stay asleep, having poor quality sleep, waking up too early or sleeping too much. Here are a few common causes of sleep problems.

  • Aging: We’ve already mentioned that older people may experience lighter or more disturbed sleep. However, if they nap during the daytime they may feel less tired at night. Not being able to sleep at night can then become frustrating and worrying which makes it more difficult.
  • Stress and anxiety: If your body is tense and your mind is racing with worries, it can be a lot harder to get to sleep.
  • Medical reasons: There are lots of medical issues that may affect sleep. These include an increased need to go to the toilet during the night, hot flushes brought on by the menopause, diabetes, blood pressure issues, pain such as arthritis, depression, restless leg syndrome and some prescribed medications.
  • Bereavement or trauma: It is common for people who have experienced emotional upset to struggle with their sleep. They may also experience nightmares or distressing flashbacks.
  • Environment: Sometimes sleep problems can be caused by our surroundings, such as the temperature of the room or the hardness of the bed. It can also be harder to sleep in unknown places.
  • Lack of routine: Shift work, young children or other lifestyle factors such as drinking or smoking can disrupt your sleep routine and make it harder to fall asleep.

Understanding the potential causes for your sleep problem is the first step in overcoming it.