Sleep problems in later life

Strategies for good sleep

When we asked people to tell us the strategies they used to try and achieve good sleep they gave us many examples of what worked for them, or what might help others.
 
Being calm and relaxed was commonly mentioned by people as being helpful to achieve good quality sleep. Relaxation techniques were used by quite a few people and they described how tensing and relaxing all of the muscles of the body, very slowly, one at a time, can help, sometimes accompanied by slow breathing exercises.
 
Mary calms herself down before going to sleep by relaxing, meditating and breathing deeply and finds this helps, although it can still take her half an hour to go to sleep. These methods also work for Roy, but he warned that it does take practice to get them right before you reap some benefit from them. A few people had also found listening to relaxation tapes helpful, some of which were of people talking quietly and others were of relaxing music.
One person we spoke to said that if she wakes up in the night, rather than relaxing and trying to get back to sleep, she needs to get up and wake herself up completely by going to the toilet or watching television.
Reading was often a good way to get to sleep before going to bed or once in bed, and most people read books, but some take newspapers or magazines to bed. Many people had difficulty staying awake for very long when they started to read a book in bed and often read the same pages every night and so took a very long time to finish a book. But for some people reading a book could be a distraction and stop them from sleeping, so it was better to read something less interesting.
Similarly, people talked about trying not to have too many thoughts in their head because this distracted them and stopped them from sleeping. Otto, for example, tried counting to help him get to sleep, but unlike Roy, discovered that this led him to start thinking about other things and kept him awake. Others found that thinking about doing something, like building a boat trailer or playing a round of golf, actually helped them get to sleep.
Several people, who had difficulty sleeping, had tried a number of different strategies over a longer period of time to help them sleep, some of which worked and some of which didn’t.
A number of the people we spoke to had some ideas about what would be the right strategies for getting good sleep, but were aware that they didn’t follow these strategies, so their advice would be to not do what they did!
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Also there was a sense that sleep is very individual and personal and that a strategy which works for one person may not work for another. Some people said that to find the right strategy you should speak to the person and find out what their particular problem is. Jim has diabetes and he sometimes experiences episodes of hypoglycaemia in the night, which can occur when blood glucose drops below normal level and the body and brain can’t function properly. His strategy was therefore particularly focused on those who had this type of problem at night.
Deciding when and what to eat and drink were also strategies people used to help with their sleep. Many people were aware of the need to avoid drinking too much caffeine, particularly during the evening, and some also avoided drinking tea. Mary stopped drinking both tea and coffee at 6 pm, but would continue to drink water. Dessie will only drink decaffeinated coffee in the evening. A few people were aware that coffee, tea and also alcohol may have a detrimental effect on their sleep, but continued to drink them.
Drinking something milky before bed helped several people. This could be in the form of just milk, milk and honey, or drinks such as Horlicks. Occasionally though, if people woke up in the night, they might make a drink to help them get back to sleep. Instead of tossing and turning in bed if she wakes up during the night, Sue B will make herself a cup of milk and honey and take it back to bed and read until she feels tired again. However, John found that drinking Horlicks before bed helped him sleep better but also made him more likely to need to go to the toilet in the night.
 
Many people tried not to eat too late in the evening, largely because it made them feel uncomfortable if they went to bed with a full stomach. Daniel’s practice nurse told him that it is okay to eat later in the evening and that it won’t affect his sleep but Sue B.’s nutritionist advised her not to eat too late. Now and then, when people wake up in the night feeling hungry and finding it difficult to sleep, they said they may get up and have a small snack, such as a biscuit or toast.
Others said that the timing of when they eat, or certain foods they eat will have an impact on how they sleep. Eating chocolate late at night keeps Anne awake. Mike is aware that he gets more indigestion now than when he was younger and thinks this may be related to how closely he eats to his bedtime.

Last reviewed September 2015.

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