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Sleep problems

What are the causes and types of sleep problems?

Sleep problems are common

An increasing number of people find that getting a good night’s sleep can be a real problem. For them, sleep appears to be as elusive as a toothed hen. Estimates of the number of people suffering from sleep problems vary:

  • It is estimated that up to 150 million people around the world have problems getting a restful sleep.
  • In a recent large-scale, multi-national study of sleep problems among eight countries in Asia and Africa, in South Africa, 31.3 percent of women and 27.2 percent of men report having sleep problems *

Whatever the true figure is, it is clear that many people around us suffer from sleep problems!

Types of sleep problems

In general, there are three types of sleep problems:

  • Difficulty getting to sleep. This is probably the most common problem. With normal sleep, one should be unconscious well within 30 minutes. However, some people can find that it takes a few hours to fall asleep but once this is achieved, the quality of sleep is good.
  • Poor quality sleep. On the other hand, there are those who have no problem getting to sleep. However, they feel that they sleep too lightly, waking up often with the slightest noise disturbing their sleep. They seem to stay awake for a long period of time, although in reality, these periods of wakefulness are shorter than they would think.
  • Waking up early. This may or may not be a problem. Some people enjoy waking up at the crack of dawn to get on with their daily lives, uninterrupted by others and achieving loads at this time of the morning. However, others who wake up early could suffer from low mood or depression. If you think you suffer from depression, you should speak to your doctor, if you have not already done so.

Causes of sleep problems

The causes of sleep problems are many and complex. However, the main reasons people experience sleep problems can be summarized as follows:

  • The sleep environment. This is perhaps one of the first problems for you to rule out, even if there are other causes leading to your sleep problems. Your sleep environment may not appear to have changed recently, but other things around you may have. Make sure your bed and bedroom are comfortable. Is your mattress too hard, or perhaps too soft? Has it been changed recently – maybe it needs to be renewed? Is your bedroom too hot, or too cold? Is it a light problem – is it dark enough? Have you moved recently and have problems getting used to sleeping in your new bedroom? Do you have a problem with noisy neighbours, or a busy street? Maybe it is a noisy (new) partner – don’t forget the influence of who you are sleeping with.
  • Stress, anxiety and worry. What happens to you during the day can have a big impact on how you sleep at night. Have you been anxious lately? Have you been under more stress at work? What about family problems or worries? Individually, these may not appear to be much, but as a collection, it could be that your mind is unable to settle down enough when you get into bed, contributing to your sleep problem. Getting older. Most of us do not want to admit to his, but getting older is a fact of life – one of the ‘problems’ which we cannot avoid. We might be able to ignore it successfully, but the result is that we simply continue to get older. No matter how fit we are, as we age, our sleep pattern changes. Our sleep becomes less deep during the second half of the night and in general, less sleep is needed. On the whole, this is not a problem – unless one feels tired during the day, or becomes anxious or worried about not getting a good night’s sleep.
  • Minor medical conditions. There are a number of minor medical conditions which can give rise to sleep problems:
    For a woman, night sweats due to the menopause can lead to problems sleeping.
    A man of similar age can suffer from an enlarged prostate. This problem becomes more common with increasing age, and one of the most common symptoms experienced the need to get up at night to urinate.
    Others may suffer from a condition known as ‘restless legs’ – a feeling that you have to move your legs to relieve discomfort.
    Tinnitus, sometimes known as ringing in the ears, is another minor medical problem that can disturb sleep – just as a noisy street might.
    There are of course, a whole host of other minor medical problems such as congested nasal passages due to colds and flu, difficulty getting comfortable in bed because of a stiff neck or a painful joint which may give rise to sleep problems.