4th May, 202210 min read

How to sleep well: your complete guide

Medical reviewer:
Dr Ann Nainan
Dr Ann Nainan
Dr Adiele Hoffman
Dr Adiele Hoffman
Author:
Charlotte Haigh
Charlotte Haigh
Last reviewed: 05/05/2022
Medically reviewed

All of Healthily's articles undergo medical safety checks to verify that the information is medically safe. View more details in our safety page, or read our editorial policy.

Getting good sleep is an important part of looking after your wellbeing – it’s essential for helping your body to work properly. We’re all a bit different, but as a general rule, most adults need between 7 and 9 hours of sleep a night.

Struggling to hit your quota? Have a look at our app where you can try out our sleep plans and track your sleep.

While there’s a lot of focus on how many hours we snooze, some studies suggest that it’s sleep quality that’s more important. For quality rest that helps to restore and repair your body and mind, you need to pass through the 4 different stages of sleep 4 to 6 times a night.

Unfortunately, though, lots of us struggle to get a good night’s rest – in fact, research suggests that a third of people in the UK and US will have sleep problems at some point. Women are at particular risk, for several reasons, including - you’ve guessed it - hormones (read more about why women are more likely to have sleep problems).

“Sleep issues can have a big impact on your life, and you may feel it’s a difficult thing to fix,” says Healthily GP Dr Adiele Hoffman. “But there are proven ways to help you get the refreshing slumber you dream of – so read on to learn more.”

lack of sleep

What can cause poor sleep?

There’s a long list of things that can affect your sleep, and sometimes several can combine to cause problems. These can include:

  • stress – whether it’s caused by being too busy at work or the death of a loved one, stress puts your body into a state of ‘hyperarousal’, which disrupts your sleep. Worrying about getting to sleep can also become a source of stress in itself, which can make it hard to break out of the cycle of stress and insomnia
  • mental health issues – conditions such as depression and anxiety can lead you to focus on negative thoughts at night, which can cause mental hyperarousal that keeps you awake. It’s estimated that 40% of people with insomnia have a mental health condition, and insomnia can also make mental health issues worse
  • an irregular sleep schedule – this may be caused by things such as shift work, jet lag or taking daytime naps. It affects your internal body clock, leading to disruption of your sleep-wake cycle
  • stimulants – these are substances that can keep you awake, including caffeine in tea, coffee, chocolate and certain medicines, and nicotine from smoking or vaping. Caffeine can stay in your system for hours, so if you have it in the afternoon or evening, it can disrupt your sleep
  • noise from outside - for example, because you live by a busy road or have noisy neighbours
  • overstimulation – stimulating your brain can make it hard to relax enough to sleep, for example, if you work late or use electronic devices close to bedtime
  • alcohol – this is a sedative, so it can make you feel sleepy at first, but it can also disrupt your sleep cycle and cause broken sleep
  • children who wake in the night - whether you have a baby who needs feeding or older children who wake up with nightmares or night terrors
  • caring for someone who needs help at night - neurological conditions, such as Alzheimer’s disease, can affect someone’s body clock and trigger wakefulness at night
  • underlying conditions – any condition that causes long-term (chronic) pain can have a big impact on how well you sleep, for example
  • sleep disorders – conditions such as sleep apnoea, sleepwalking, restless legs syndrome (RLS) and sleep paralysis can all disrupt your sleep
  • your partner - sharing a bed with someone who snores, has a different sleep schedule to you or has disturbed sleep for some reason can keep you awake
  • certain medicines – some medicines might keep you awake, because they contain stimulants, for example. Read about medicines that can affect your sleep

How does lack of sleep affect you?

If you struggle to sleep, you probably already know it can leave you feeling stressed and irritable, and can affect your judgement and motivation. Lack of sleep can make problems seem more difficult to deal with so you might overreact to relatively small things you’d handle calmly if you were well rested.

Poor sleep can also affect your relationships – 1 study found couples who slept badly were more likely to have hostile rows – and your work, where you may make mistakes and struggle to stay focused.

It can even make daily tasks more dangerous: a large US study found that drivers who had less than 4 hours of sleep had the same crash risk as drivers who were 1.5 times over the legal alcohol limit.

How poor sleep can affect your health

In the long term, trouble sleeping (insomnia) is linked to several health problems. But it’s important to remember poor sleep is just one of many things that can play a part, including genetics.

  • obesity – ever noticed you find it hard to control your food cravings after you’ve had a bad night’s sleep? Over time, this can increase your chances of weight gain. Studies have linked lack of sleep with higher levels of the ‘hunger hormone’, ghrelin, and lower levels of leptin, which regulates your appetite
  • depression and anxiety – research has shown a link between poor sleep and these mental health conditions. A large Australian study found young women who had trouble sleeping were 4 times more likely to get depression in the next decade, and twice as likely to develop anxiety. It’s thought lack of sleep may affect the way your brain regulates your emotions and the way you think about things, making you more likely to feel pessimistic. Another theory is that inflammatory substances triggered by lack of sleep could have an effect on your brain
  • immune system issues – research has found sleep is important for a healthy immune system, and there’s growing evidence sleep loss can affect the way it works. Studies have even found that getting good sleep can help vaccines work better
  • type 2 diabetes – studies suggest lack of sleep can affect the way your body deals with sugars from the food you eat, which raises your risk of diabetes. And if you already have diabetes, poor sleep can make the condition harder to manage
  • heart disease – sleep allows your heart to recover from the strain that’s put on it while you’re awake, and poor sleep has been linked to heart-related issues such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart attack and stroke
  • fertility issues – having trouble getting pregnant? Sleep problems can affect your fertility in a few ways, including affecting the way your hormones work
  • cancer – the evidence is mixed, but some studies have found a link between poor sleep and cancer. It could be connected to your internal body clock (circadian rhythm), which regulates your sleep-wake cycle and other bodily functions, including metabolism and hormone release. If your body clock is disrupted by bad sleep, it may have a knock-on effect on these other systems in your body – which may affect your cancer risk. Long-lasting inflammation – which can be caused by poor sleep, – is also linked with some types of cancer, and obesity raises your risk of certain cancers

Sleeping mask and alarm

Self-care tips for better sleep

By improving your sleep, you can reduce your risk of health problems and feel more energised. Your first step should be to look at what’s known as ‘sleep hygiene’. This means doing things to create the right conditions for good sleep:

  • keeping your bedroom cool – the latest science says the best temperature for sleep is about 18.3C
  • making sure your bedroom’s dark - if there’s light coming in from outside, try blackout blinds or an eye mask to help create your ideal snooze environment
  • blocking out noise - you can’t always do much about things like noisy neighbours or a busy road, but good earplugs can really help
  • making your bedroom a soothing sanctuary – as a general rule, clean, comfortable bedding, a mattress and pillow that you like, and soft lighting will all make a difference
  • managing disruptions as much as you can - try our tips to help with a snoring partner and have a look at our tricks for getting back to sleep if you’re woken in the night, whether that’s by a crying child, a partner coming to bed late or something else
  • taking time to wind down before bed – try a relaxing activity, such as reading or having a bath. And turn off electronic devices 2 to 3 hours before bed to reduce your exposure to ‘blue light’ from screens, which can lower your levels of the sleep hormone, melatonin. Not looking at screens will also mean you avoid news and social media debates, which can lead to overstimulation

For more helpful sleep tips that can be surprisingly powerful, try these science-backed sleep hacks.

When to see a doctor about sleep deprivation

Make an appointment with your doctor if:

  • self-care tips haven’t improved your sleep
  • you’ve had sleep problems for several months
  • lack of sleep is affecting your daily life
  • you have an underlying health condition that’s affecting your sleep
  • you feel very sleepy or find it hard to stay awake during the day

If you’re having sleep problems and you aren’t sure whether you need to see a doctor, try our Smart Symptom Checker to help you work out your best next steps.

How are sleep problems diagnosed?

Your doctor will ask questions to try to work out what’s causing your sleep problems. They might also ask you to keep a sleep diary for a couple of weeks, to give them a clearer picture of what’s going on.

Before your appointment, it can be helpful to make of note of:

  • when you go to sleep and wake up
  • what and when you eat and drink during the day
  • what exercise you do and when you do it

You can log your sleep symptoms and sleep quality using the Healthily self-care app.

Your doctor may also ask about your family history, and might do a physical examination, such as listening to your heart and lungs.

In some cases, you may be referred to a specialist for a sleep study, where you’re monitored overnight in a clinic to work out if you have a sleep disorder.

Medical treatments for sleep problems

Any treatment your doctor recommends will depend on what’s causing your poor sleep. You may be referred for a type of therapy called cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia (CBT-i), which aims to improve your sleep habits and break the cycle of anxiety about sleep.

If an underlying condition is affecting your sleep, you’ll probably be offered specific treatment for this. The same applies to sleep disorders – read about sleep apnoea treatment and restless legs syndrome treatment, for example.

Sleeping pills will usually only be prescribed if your insomnia is severe and other things haven’t helped, and only for a short time.

Your health questions answered

Is 5 hours of sleep enough?

“We all miss out on sleep at times, and sometimes there are unavoidable reasons – such as having a new baby. But in the longer term, 5 hours a night isn’t enough for your wellbeing – research has found you need 7 to 8 hours for your body and mind to function properly. If you’re regularly sleeping for less than 5 hours, it’s time to look at your sleep habits, and get help if you need it.”

Dr Adiele Hoffman

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