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Insomnia: Hannah Ball consults Dr James Oliver of DB’s Island Health Family Practice for some solutions.

Do you ever lie awake unable to sleep at night? If you eventually fall asleep, do you wake too early, feeling drained and unable to face the day? If the answer is yes, you’re probably experiencing insomnia.

So why do so many of us struggle to sleep? According to Dr James Oliver of Island Health Family Practice in DB, the most well recognised cause is, you guessed it, stress. Both acute insomnia, which lasts a few days, and chronic insomnia, which renders sufferers unable to get a good night’s sleep for a month or more, are often the result of long, demanding working hours, problems at home, or quite simply an overly busy lifestyle.

“Interestingly, though it is not understood why, statistics show that women are more likely to have insomnia than men,” Dr Oliver says. Older people, those in pain and people suffering from depression are also particularly susceptible to sleeplessness.

Dr Oliver warns that certain medications can cause insomnia. “If you read the data sheet of almost any medicine, insomnia will be listed as a possible side effect,” he says. “Cold medications are the most common culprits. Certain anti-depressants can also cause wakefulness if taken at night, and several of the antihypertensives (used to treat high blood pressure) may also result in poor quality of sleep.”

Finding relief

To combat the problem, Dr Oliver recommends sufferers regulate their lifestyle. “Our bodies like rhythm and our circadian rhythms vary throughout the day, causing us to feel sleepy at certain times and awake at others. Irregular habits disrupt that,” he explains.

“Relaxation techniques can also be beneficial,” he adds. “Any technique that involves creating a relaxed environment (preferably internally and externally) and controlling your breathing is worth a try.”

Insomniacs should also take a good look at their diet. Carbohydrates like rice and cereal will aid sleep, but if you’re after a healthy night-time snack, Dr Oliver recommends cherries. “They contain melatonin, a sleep-inducing hormone,” he says.

Tried-and-tested remedies

Interestingly, the old-wives’ tale about warm milk making you feel sleepy holds true. “Milk contains tryptophan which is a precursor to serotonin, a neurotransmitter which can help with sleep,” Dr Oliver explains. “And insomniacs do need to cut out caffeine and alcohol. Although alcohol can make us feel sleepy initially, it can lead to excitation, poor sleep quality and tiredness in the morning.”

There’s some truth too in the sedative power of counting sheep. If you find yourself unable to drop off, don’t just lie there fretting – think about something else, or get up and walk around for 10 minutes or so.

And what about sleeping pills? “Although night sedation is very effective, the more recent medications don’t last very long and users tend not to be sedated in the morning, causing them to wake early,” Dr Oliver says. “The older medications, like benzodiazepines and sedating antihistamines, have a risk of morning sedation or hangover. In general, sedation should be used as little as possible and in the smallest dose that will work.”

Warning that some sleeping pills are addictive and most tend to work less effectively the longer you use them, Dr Oliver concludes: “It is always better to try and identify the problem causing insomnia and act on that.”

You can contact Dr James Oliver at Island Health Family Practice, DB on 2987 7575.

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