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MythBusters: Insomnia myths

14 February 2022

Welcome to the AXA Feelgood Health Mythbusters: Insomnia edition! 

Insomnia is a common problem that is thought to affect one in every three people in the UK.1 This could mean finding it hard to drift off to sleep, waking in the night, waking up early and not being able to get back to sleep or finding it tricky to concentrate throughout the day.2

There’s a lot of varying advice on the internet, so our Feelgood Health Mythbusters are here to help separate fact from fiction. To do this we’ve engaged the help of our very own Mental Health Consultancy Lead, Eugene Farrell, to give you some useful and tips and bust some surprising myths to ensure you get a better sleep. 

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Insomnia myths

“Insomnia means you can’t fall asleep” 

Myth! This is a bit of a confusing one. Insomnia is a difficulty with sleep, you probably will fall asleep but it’s often not easy, or the sleep is very short. All of us have difficulty getting off to sleep sometimes – that’s completely normal, particularly if we have something on our mind. However, if this happens regularly you might be experiencing a form of insomnia. 

A sleep disorder means we might find it hard to fall asleep, but it has many other symptoms: you might wake up several times through the night, wake up much earlier than you should or would like to or find it hard to nap, even if you are tired. When you have insomnia your quality of sleep tends to be poor too, resulting in feeling exhausted and unable to concentrate during the day. 

The sleep deprivation caused by insomnia can have long-term effects your overall health and wellbeing.

“Counting sheep helps you sleep”

Myth! Using this distraction activity is supposed to help to reduce the worry of not getting off to sleep. There is no good evidence that this is effective, in fact it may cause more worry for some, while others find their brain more active and thus unable to drift off – for most, counting sleep could even prolong the amount of time it takes you to fall asleep. If we can calm our mind, we can allow our body to go to sleep.

Breathing techniques like the “body scan” can relax the body and slow the mind thus allowing sleep to happen. If that doesn’t work, get out of bed and do something relaxing like reading a book, or doing a wordsearch and try to sleep again after 30 minutes.  

“Insomnia can’t be treated”

Myth! There are many factors that go into getting a good night’s sleep. We start with adjusting the basics – addressing any issues that may be associated with insomnia, like stress, medications, medical conditions. You should also address what we call sleep hygiene which includes regulating your room temperature, avoiding caffeine and not using electronic devices before bedtime. You can read more on sleep hygiene here

If these natural changes don’t work, your doctor might recommend something called cognitive behavioural therapy, or prescribe a short term course of medication like a “z-drug” or melatonin or both to help you improve relaxation, to in turn get a better sleep. Drugs are not recommended in the long term and you may be referred to a specialist sleep clinic.  

“Your body gets used to getting less sleep”

Myth! Research has shown that your body and brain can’t just get used to getting less sleep. Persistent sleep deprivation affects daytime performance, mood, decision making, memory, focus and creativity. Even if you are getting used to having less sleep, more serious health problems may be accumulating because of your body’s inability to get the rest it needs.

“Napping makes up for lack of sleep at night”

Myth! Napping can be helpful if we feel over tired but keep naps short to perhaps 10 – 20 minutes. This can give you a boost to get you through the day. Have a nap early as napping in the late afternoon or evening is likely to interfere with you sleep cycle and increase insomnia. If a nap turns into a full-on sleep this again can interfere with our sleep cycle, so keep it as short as possible.

The knock-on effects of insomnia can harm your FeelgoodHealth, so if you are suffering please speak to your GP about how you can move forward. Be sure to look at our sleep hub for more tips from our experts that can help you on your journey to a better sleep. 

References:

  1. Insomnia causes & treatments - Illnesses & conditions | NHS inform
  2. Insomnia - NHS (www.nhs.uk)