This can be a difficult problem and can drive people a bit crazy. Sleeping tablets have a place for short-term use but are addictive and should be used with care.

Many people have tried other remedies. Herbal remedies are not as strong as sleeping tablets but they are not addictive. Passiflora is especially good if you have an overactive mind. Valerian is more for a restless body (also helps certain types of pain or spasms). These are often available in health food shops or can be ordered from a herbal supplier. Natrasleep, which contains valerian, is widely available, from health food shops and some chemists.

Melatonin can be useful but takes a while to kick in and doesn’t give the sedative effect of a sleeping tablet. This is the hormone we normally produce during sleep but it decreases with age. It can be prescribed. Most people produce will need between 3 and 9mg of slow release melatonin but the maximum dose that can be given is 20mg. If you take too much it will work for the early part of the night but sleep is worse later so the dose may need adjusting.

Melatonin needs a prescription in the UK. Another option is to use 5 hydroxy tryptophan (5HTP 100-300mg) as this is converted into melatonin. Tryptophan is also converted into melatonin but is not available as a supplement (see Nutrition and depression leaflet for foods high in tryptophan).

Eating within a time window so no food it taken for at least 12 hours, say from 6pm to the following morning, often helps. This is good for health and aids weight loss. It also avoids the sleep-disrupting effect of a drop in blood sugar during sleep which occurs after eating carbohydrate-rich foods or alcohol late in the evening.

Magnesium is a key mineral as it relaxes the body. Most people are short of it as we only get about half as much magnesium in our food as we did 100 years ago. I would suggest starting with about 200mg twice daily and doubling it if needed (see magnesium leaflet for more details).

Because people can get so understandably hung up about lack of sleep they sometimes think about it all the time. This is a mistake because, as the saying goes, “You get what you focus on”. So deliberately focus on the days you slept well – maybe even recording them and perhaps giving thanks for them does help and put the bad nights out of your mind as much as you can.

Stop coffee for most of the day (although morning coffee may be beneficial). Taking exercise is very important otherwise you will have an overactive body when you go to bed (however exercise in the evening raises body temperature and can worsen sleep).

It is well documented that a cooler core body temperature at night enhances sleep. So keep the temperature in the bedroom low.

A few people get sleep apnoea where they stop breathing at night for up to a minute. It is usually the spouse who notices this. Often this happens to people who are overweight and snore. This can need a specific treatment.

Body Rhythms

Our body have evolved to work in a natural cycle in rhythm in tune with natural light. Our use of artificial light has changed all this. When we live under natural light or spend more time outdoors we secrete the right amount of hormones such as melatonin which helps us sleep. The use of computers, mobile phones, pads and TVs which emit a blue light and stimulates us makes our body thinks its morning or midday when it isn’t. The way to get round this is to make sure you get exposure to natural light outdoors in the morning. We receive vastly more light stimulation when we are outdoors than indoors. A walk in the morning for 15 to 20 minutes is ideal so the body thinks it’s time to wake up. In the evening put phones, pads and computers away one or more hours before bed times. Keep the TV off or at a distance and turn other lights down. Keep the bedroom as dark as possible and don’t use TVs or phones in the bedroom. Glasses are available for about £20 which filter out blue light and some people have found using these for the hour before bedtime makes a real difference. There are also apps to reduce blue light on phones and pads. One study showed that people who used iPads before going to bed slept worse than those who used books.

Another strategy is to get up half an hour earlier than your normal time every day. Do this regularly for two weeks however tired you feel. Although this is counter-intuitive, research has shown this can be effective.

Electromagnetic Stress

Electromagnetic fields can cause problems – don’t have mobile phones charging near the bed as they emit microwaves which interfere with sleep. Don’t use mobile phones for alarms as they will be too close and particularly don’t put them under the pillow. Switch wifi off at night.

A few people are affected by geopathic stress –this is due to harmful energy patterns often from underground water. The clue to this is if you sleep better at another site, such as on holiday (although it can take a few days to improve). If you suspect this sleep in another room for a week or change the position of the bed.

Mental Techniques

Experiment with these, none will work every time. Find out what works for you.

  1. Whenever you have any thoughts imagine you have a blackboard eraser and just keep rubbing them out over and over again
  2. Try keeping your eyes open and looking at one area in the room until you want to close them.
  3. Visualise the letter A on one side and the number 1 on the other. Keep going slowly through the alphabet and numbers (ie next go to 2 and B) noticing if they change colour. Ideally do each number and letter with each breath. When you get to the end of the alphabet go backwards with the letters. Another version of this is to start with number 300 and just go backwards.
  4. Regard all the extra time you don’t sleep as bonus time and think of all he good times you’ve had and all the good times you’re going to have.
  5. If you wake up –remember what you have been dreaming –helps in getting back to sleep.

Using a relaxation or sleep tape or CD with a portable player is quite a useful strategy.

Remember the biggest problem is usually worry about how you will be the next day rather than the actual sleep loss. Many of the great achievements of mankind have been done after a poor night’s sleep – how many people have slept badly before a big event and come through it fine? As long as you are resting in bed your body is getting rest of a kind. Tell yourself that the loss of sleep won’t matter – and then it most likely won’t.