Worrying about not sleeping can be as bad as not sleeping! Photo: Matthew Henry

Don’t stress if you have trouble sleeping

By Geraldine Fitzgerald

People who can conk out the moment their head hits the pillow don’t realise how lucky they are.

Over 62 per cent of us are not getting sufficient sleep, according to the latest survey by market research firm Brado, and the accompanying impacts on health and wellbeing range from irksome to downright scary.

But is the obsession with getting enough sleep as harmful as lacking shuteye altogether? Dr Liam Doherty, Consultant Respiratory Physician and Sleep Specialist at the Bons Secours Hospital, thinks it may well be.

“To be frank, there is a lot of sleep misperception,” he explained, “as people have a huge awareness of the part of the night they were lying awake, and no memory of the times they were actually asleep. So they might have gotten quite a lot of sleep, but only remember the waking parts, and get anxious about it.”

Anxiety around sleep is guaranteed to make drifting off even more elusive; being convinced you cannot get to sleep then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“I’ve always said that bed is for two things, and one of those is sleeping. If you’re lying awake, get out of bed and go do something else,” says Dr Doherty. “Don’t be worrying about sleep; your body will catch up.”

He advises against a lie-in, too. “Lie-ins perpetuate poor sleep. Get up, even if you feel tired. Implementing sleep restriction that morning will activate the sleep drive that night. When you begin to feel sleep pressure, go to bed.”

Oversleeping is just as bad as sleep deprivation - leading to weight gain, reduced cognition, decreases in lean mass and increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

We all have an endogenous circadian system – it’s one of the most profound biological mechanisms influencing sleep and mental health, according to the European Institute for Sleep Research.

Broadly speaking, we fall into categories: morning people and evening people. It’s evening people who traditionally experience sleep issues as our busy brain won’t shut down, and societal demands of early morning work hours increase anxiety about the sleep we’re missing.

Increased flexibility of hours during the pandemic decreased sleep problems for many – it’s not that we arose any later; it’s that the perceived pressure to do so was lifted.

The endless stimuli of modern living challenge our sleep/wake cycle, which used to be governed by light – when darkness began to fall, we produced melatonin, which made us drowsy.

Now endless scrolling and myriad screens – even a book that’s a real page-turner - interfere with sleep hygiene.

When should you see a doctor? “When sleep issues start to interfere with your daily life,” says Dr Doherty.

Sleep medications may help in the very short term but have diminishing returns and can be dangerous. A form of cognitive behavioural therapy, CBTi, can help people who’ve become obsessed with lack of sleep, however the overwhelming message from global sleep researchers seems to be stop overthinking; follow some simple guidelines and natural sleep will eventually be yours.

You can reorder your sleep habits by doing the following:

· Establish a regular relaxing bedtime routine; Dr Doherty and most medical professionals recommended mindfulness. You may have to learn how; there are several audio apps available.

· Keep the bedroom free of all screens and read sitting up or in a chair.

· Keep the bedroom cool and dark. Sleep comes more quickly as the body temperature drops.

· Reduce use of any screen, including phone and in particular blue light, at least one hour before bedtime.

· Limit caffeine use: if you’re sensitive to its effects, have none after lunchtime.

· Increase exposure to natural daylight, especially during winter, and get daily exercise

· Stop worrying about it!